By Kaylee Tornay

Mail Tribune (Medford)

Word lists and stacks of books hardly square with an age of increasingly expedient digital spelling tools. But the spelling competition tradition remains strong in the Beaver State.

No less is true in Jackson County, where a handful of students returned last month from the 2019 Oregon State Spelling Championship with first-place awards and recognitions.

“It was fun,” said Lisa Moening, who watched her fourth-grade son, Ford, take home first place in the elementary-age division. “It was all-around fun.”

Stella Beard from Hedrick Middle School won the sixth-through-eighth-grade division, and Isaiah Sasser, a past champion from Logos Public Charter School, tied for third place. Abigail Easton, a senior from South Medford High School, took third in the high school competition. Ava Kuehl, a Patrick Elementary School student from Gold Hill, won the junior division of the spelling bee, which is a separate contest that’s open to fair-goers of all ages and resembles a more traditional spelling event.

Though the mention of spelling competitions summons mental images of children furrowing their brows in front of a microphone on ESPN, the state competition uses a quieter format. Contestants write their answers throughout a series of rounds, and then their scores are tallied up.

“Knowing what the right word is, and knowing how to use a word properly — it’s just part of literacy,” said Carol Goldfarb, co-chair of Oregon Spellers, which for the past 10 years has run the event at the State Fair after the Oregon Department of Education stopped funding it after 2008.

The contest begins in local schools and moves up to the county level, feeding into the statewide event at the end of summer. Southern Oregon University Pre-College Youth Programs coordinates the Jackson County competition. So far, 27 counties participate.

Over the past decade, Goldfarb has seen scores of students from across the state participate in an academic competition often described as an alternative for non-athletes to compete, though some of the students are athletes, as well, Goldfarb said.

“(It’s) giving them a chance to have something where they can use their brain muscles, so to speak,” she said of the spelling competition.

Many of the students share a love of reading. Not all kids love word lists, but they pick up words from the books they devour in school and in their spare time.

Ford Moening is one of those students. He spends some time with the word lists, but he said he loves to read more.

“I know the rules,” he said. “And sometimes, I kind of envision the word. Not a whole lot, but sometimes.”

This year, he faced some tough words, including homonyms such as taut, and scientific terms such as mitochondria.

Ford, who attends Sacred Heart School, said the competition makes him nervous, but when he’s done, “it feels great. It feels great for it to just be over, but I also feel a really big sense of accomplishment,” he said.

Oregon Spellers fundraises to put on the events, and also to offer monetary prizes to the winners. With help from the Oregon Association for Talented and Gifted, first place earns students $200, second $100 and third place $50, according to the nonprofit’s website.

It’s the spirit of camaraderie in competition and the academic challenge, though, that brings many of the kids back, including Ford. He has one year left in the elementary competition, but he expects to return throughout his career as a student.

“It’s just been a really good experience for me, and it’s really expanded my vocabulary a lot,” he said.