Fast Chat: Five minutes with Scot Hillman

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Scot Hillman is the volunteer wordmaster for the largest local spelling bee in the country. Each year 250 students compete in the Tulare (Calif.) County Spelling Bee for a chance to go on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Hillman, a member of Neighborhood Church in Visalia, Calif., has been wordmaster for 16 years.

Interview by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest

What do you do as a wordmaster?

I read the word to be spelled, use it in a sentence and then read it again. I’ll read it over till students are satisfied they have heard the word correctly. I can also give a definition and the language of origin.

Is there some technique to the role?

You never want a child to misspell because you pronounced incorrectly. At first I would always look ahead to preview the next word and sentence, but after 16 years I pretty much know the first 300 words in the books Scripps provides.  I’ve also developed a quick eye for reading the phonetic spelling characters like the upside-down “e” and the “a” with an umlaut over it.

Isn’t the atmosphere at a spelling bee tense?

Yes, the kids are all big-eyed and nervous, but I try to keep it light. This year’s theme was Star Wars so I grew a beard and came dressed in a hooded robe as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

What advice do you have for a child who is competing?

Always ask the wordmaster if there are alternative pronunciations. Sometimes there’s another way to pronounce a word where the vowel sound just pops out.

How is being a wordmaster an expression of your faith?

Christians are called to be servants, and volunteering for the bee and at other community events is a way for me to serve. Of the 250 kids at the bee, 247 will not win a trophy. If I can encourage those 247 and tell them they’re awesome, I’m sharing Christ’s love.

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