Born to Spell

How did Gail Day get to be so good at spelling?

Was she born to spell?

Were her parents spelling champs? Did they start training Gail to spell when she was jsut a babe?

Day 2 is the part of the bee I like best. That's when the kids get up on stage and spell words out loud.


I went to West Beach to meet Gail and her parents a week after the bee. Gail's parents met me in the driveway.

Gail's mom, Karen Day, is an artist who paints and works with clay. Gail's dad, David Day, drives a truck. They are as nice a pair as you will ever meet. But they are not spelling champs.

"Spelling was not my best subject," Karen explained as we sat in the living room of the house she and David rent on Davis Street in West Beach.

"I was not bad at spelling," she added, "but I was not the best in my class."

David Day broke into a big grin. "Let's just say I'm not a spelling champ like Gail! It seems like she never makes a mistake!"

Karen and Gail smiled.

Karen whispered to me, "When we were dating, David used to write me notes. They were so cute, but there were some spelling mistakes in them."

"When could you tell Gail was a hot shot at spelling?" I asked.

"Well," David said, "I could tell she was good at it, but I did not see just how good she was for a long time. Shucks, I am so proud of her!"

"When I look back on it," Karen Day said, "it seems to me it all started in second grade, when Gail was in Miss Baker's class."

Gail nodded and said, "It was Miss Baker who got me started. Miss Baker was the best!"

Miss Baker

I was sitting with spelling champ Gail Day.

I asked her, "How did this Miss Baker make you into a good speller?".

"Well," said Gail, "Miss Baker had a cool way of explaining English spelling. She made spelling trees."

"Spelling trees?"

"Yes," said Gail. "Here, [I'll make one for you." Gail got a sheet of paper and made a tree.

She pointed at the trunk of the tree and explained, "The trunk stands for a sound, like the sound /ae/ as in cake. The branches stand for the spellings for that sound. There's one branch for words with the 'a_e' spelling like flame and stake. There's one branch for words that have the 'ay' spelling like play and stay. There's one branch for words that have the 'ai' spelling like pain and train. And so on. Get it?"

"Got it."

"So Miss Baker would make a big spelling tree for a sound. Then we kids would add words to it. When we found words with the sound in them we would stick the words on the branches of the tree. We would stick all of the words with the 'ai' spelling on this branch. We would stick all of the words with the ‘ay’ spelling on that branch.”

“I see. And this helped you get better at spelling?” Gail nodded.

«The spelling trees helped us see the patterns and ‘The ey of the spellings. They helped us see which keep ae used a lot and which ones are used less, Bee a lot of good spellers in Miss Baker’s class.”

“But not all of them went on to win the State spelling bee,” I said. “Why did you?”

Gail shrugged.

“I was good at spelling. But I did not understand why English spelling was so hard. Once I asked Miss Baker why it was so hard. ‘Miss Baker,’ I said, ‘why are there five or six spellings for some sounds? That makes no sense. Why isn’t there just one spelling for a sound?”

Miss Baker explained as much as she could. Then she gave me a book on spelling. It was a cool book. It explained how English has taken in lots of spellings from French, Latin, Greek, and Spanish. When I finished that book, Miss Baker gave me a longer book. Then I found the next book by myself, One book sort of led to the next, So that’s how I got started.”