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County’s Stellar Speller Reads Like a Sponge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In preparing for the Orange County spelling bee this year, winner Marisa Choy devoured medical terms and names of mammals. She pored over names of colors and Spanish words. She scrutinized scientific terms and literary terms and words from myths and famous speeches. By sheer osmosis, she soaked up words as familiar as pump, pillbox and sundown and as obscure as phugoid, seiche and kamelaukion.

But in the end it came down to one word: reticule. That’s R-E-T-I-C-U-L-E.

Never heard of it?

“It’s a woman’s small, drawstring handbag, and it’s a measuring device, I think, for optometric instruments,” explained Marisa, 13, an eighth-grader at the Pegasus School in Huntington Beach.

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For outlasting 51 other sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade semifinalists during nearly four hours of cerebral combat in the boardroom of the Orange County Department of Education last month, Marisa received a giant dictionary and an all-expenses-paid, weeklong trip to Washington, where she will represent Orange County at the 74th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee on May 30.

The Pegasus School, which has sent two representatives to compete in the Orange County spelling bee for the past three years, had two reasons to celebrate this year: The private school for gifted students is home of not only the new county spelling champ but the second-place winner, Naneh Apkarian, a seventh-grader from Irvine.

This was the second year for both girls in the county spelling competition, and Marisa said that previous experience helped give her an edge by knowing what to expect. The unassuming straight-A student takes her spelling achievements in stride.

“Personally, I’m not really excited or anything,” she said. “I’m not getting worked up.”

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Caroline Thomas, Marisa’s English teacher, is lavish in her praise of the low-key student from Long Beach.

“They just don’t get any better than Marisa,” said Thomas, who describes her as “very gifted, extremely motivated, extremely poised, and she has a maturity beyond her years.”

She’s also “very insightful,” Thomas said. “When we’re studying novels, nothing has to really be explained to her. She picks up on everything. She has the desire to completely master whatever she’s faced with. Whether it’s a skill or an idea, she doesn’t stop until she has 100% mastery of that.”

Thomas said Marisa is the ideal spelling bee contestant.

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“No. 1, she’s a word person. She loves words,” Thomas said. “And Marisa is such a prolific reader. She always has a book going, and she loves different genres.”

As do all students at the Pegasus School, Marisa has been involved in a structured vocabulary program since fifth grade, with students in each grade studying vocabulary words that are two grade levels above. Thomas said students are required to use a predetermined number of vocabulary words in their essays and book reports. They’re not just learning words, she said. They have to put them to use.

“I actually don’t like to write that much, but I like to read. That helps the spelling, seeing how the word is used,” said Marisa, seated in an empty classroom and munching Fritos during a recent morning snack break.

To make it to the county spelling bee as one of her school’s two representatives, Marisa had to compete in a written spelling round held in each of the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade language arts classes in January. The top two spellers in each classroom moved on to an oral round.

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About half of the words used in the county spelling bee come from a booklet called “Paideia,” put out by Scripps-Howard. It lists 3,500 words by subject and by level of difficulty: easy, intermediate and advanced.

“I didn’t really study anything else,” Marisa said. “I didn’t try to memorize the dictionary or anything.”

She said she not only remembered many of the words from last year’s contest but recalled that many of the words used last year came from the “easy” and “intermediate” word categories, “so I looked at those more.”

But she didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time studying the words in the booklet. In fact, she said, she didn’t give much thought to the county spelling bee until she was on school break the week of Feb. 19--less than two weeks before the contest.

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“That’s when I thought I’d better start doing this systematically,” so she could finish studying all the words in the booklet. Her goal was to study five pages a day.

“It gets tedious just looking at words on a page, so I do like one page and come back later,” she said.

She studied the words any time she could: during study hall and free time at school, on the drive to and from school. She’s involved in synchronized swimming, dance and piano after school, so she didn’t “have that much time after school to be looking at them.”

She’s following a similar approach for the national spelling bee and started studying the words shortly after winning the county competition.

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“I’m working backward in the ‘Paideia’ book,” concentrating primarily on the advanced-word section, she said.

Not that she’s going to pull any all-nighters or marathon word-study sessions.

“I don’t have the time or want it to consume my life,” she said. “I think the idea is to kind of keep doing a little bit so it doesn’t overflow at the end.”

As for the prospect of vying against 247 other top spellers in Washington in May, she said, “I don’t have big hopes or goals, really, at this point. I just want to go there and have fun.”

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