August 2021

Zaila Avant-garde, Spelling Bee Champ


Zaila Avant-garde, winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Have you ever competed in a spelling bee? Did you win? If not, what word tripped you up? For Zaila Avant-garde, correctly spelling the word murraya won her the trophy. (Murraya is a type of flowering plant.) She became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, on July 8, 2021. Before Zaila, there had only been one other Black winner in the competition, Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica.

Zaila had never even considered competing in the spelling bee until two years before she won. Until then, she had focused mainly on basketball. She holds three basketball records in the Guinness Book of World Records. But, she always had a great love of reading. Her father was watching the National Spelling Bee on TV and decided to test Zaile with a few words. To his surprise, she spelled them correctly.

The National Spelling Bee began in 1925. It has been held every year since with two exceptions. It was canceled between 1943 and 1945, due to World War II, and in 2020, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, 209 spellers from five countries took part in the competition.

To compete, spellers must in the 8th grade (or lower) and 14 years old (or younger). Many spellers start the competition in their local classrooms. Winners then move on to their school championship, and then their community championship. To qualify for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, spellers need to win one of the regional championships.

The words used in the competition come from Words of the Champions. This booklet is published by Merriam-Webster dictionary and contains more than 1,100 words. It is the official study guide of the competition. The competition contains words mostly from Words of the Champions, but also some “surprise” words. Zaila had to spell rolamite, ancistroid, depreter, nepeta, and other difficult words to win the competition.

Zaila hopes that her record-setting win will inspire more Black and Hispanic girls to enter the competition. She plans to play basketball in college and maybe even in the WNBA. After college, she hopes to work for NASA or in a job studying human genes.

Image credit: © Joe Skipper/Reuters/Alamy
Question 1
Which of the following words did Zaila spell correctly to win the championship trophy?

Question 2
Which year was the first National Spelling Bee held?

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