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Spelling Success: DC 6th-Grader Heads To National Bee

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Since winning the city-wide spelling bee in March, Donovan Jordan has been studying four hours every day.
Emily Friedman
Since winning the city-wide spelling bee in March, Donovan Jordan has been studying four hours every day.

Donovan likes to win.

"People sometimes get mad at me cause they're like, 'Why do you want to win everything? Why are you always winning?' But I just like having accomplishments," he says.

And because he's in it to win it, Donovan is studying at least four hours a day, which might seem like a lot. But if you take a look at his spelling list, it starts to make sense. In the unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary, there are nearly 500,000 words in that dictionary. And to win the bee, Donovan must learn to spell them all. Since winning the city-wide spelling bee in March, Donovan has been studying four hours every day.

He looks up the words -- one by one -- on Dictionary.com. And writes out the word five times. He learns one word roughly every two minutes. His favorite word happens to be the longest one in the dictionary: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. He heard that one from his mom.

"Not only Donovan is in the spelling bee, but the whole family is," says Donovan's mom, Stenise Rolle Sanders. "Some of the words I can't pronounce. A lot of times we're going through and reading the etymology of a word, and I'm like, 'Oh, that's what that means?'"

Sanders is an attorney, but back when Donovan was a baby, she was just beginning law school. Donovan was a fussy baby, she says, and the only thing that really calmed him down was hearing his mom read aloud from her law text books. That, she says, was the beginning.

"If he hears something one time, he can kind of retain it. I just try to keep encouraging him," she says.

"I feel like I have photographic memory," Donovan says. "So if I look at something, I feel like I know it. But if I write it down, I feel like I mastered it."

Donovan is a quick learner. That's his strength. But, as in any competition, you must now your weakness. According to Donovan, he has three. First of all, he's young.

"There are not really a lot of sixth-graders. [There are] a lot of seventh- and eighth-graders," he says.

His second weakness is that he's never been to the competition before. Some of the spellers have competed two or three times. He says his third weakness is that the only language he's mastered is English.

"When I read some of these other people, some of them are out of the U.S., like in Ghana, China, Europe. And you know that these people know more than one language, so that gives them the advantage," he says.

And all that does make him feel a little anxious.

"It feels nervous, exciting, and nervous again. Just because it's been a dream, like, 'Oh I want to win. I want to go.' It was an expectation. But now it’s like, 'I’m going!'" he says.

When he really needs to take a break, Donovan likes to watch a movie called "Akeela and the Bee." It's about an African-American girl who unexpectedly makes it to the National Spelling Bee. Donovan finds it very motivational.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee will be broadcast on ESPN and on ABC during the first week of June.

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