Gwinnett 5th-grader heading to Scripps National Spelling Bee

March 17, 2017, Atlanta, Georgia - The winner of the State Spelling Bee, Abhiram Kapaganty, stands and holds his trophy up alongside Dr. Sid Chapman, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 17, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

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March 17, 2017, Atlanta, Georgia - The winner of the State Spelling Bee, Abhiram Kapaganty, stands and holds his trophy up alongside Dr. Sid Chapman, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 17, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Abhiram Kapaganty got close to spelling’s biggest stage last year. He won his school spelling bee, then the county spelling bee. In the district bee, he got tripped up on the word “ambivalent,” spelling it with an “i” where an “a” should have been. He couldn’t move on to the statewide competition.

Kapaganty, now 11 years old and completing fifth grade at Burnett Elementary in Suwanee, took a valuable lesson from that loss.

“I should have asked more questions,” Kapaganty said.

Spellers can ask select questions that may help them suss out a word’s spelling, including the word’s language of origin, definition and part of speech.

He applied that lesson to his successful spelling bee run this year. After winning the district bee, he took the state title, the first fifth grader to do so in 20 years. Spellers in grades four through eight are eligible to compete.

Now, Suwanee's super speller and his parents are packing up for a trip to Washington, D.C., where Kapaganty will compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He and eighth-grader Charles Li, of Evans, are the only spellers representing Georgia.

Kapaganty has been studying the nuts and bolts of spelling for about two years, going through new and challenging words and studying etymological roots. His favorite word is “hors d’oeuvres” because its many silent vowels and consonants make it a challenge to spell, he said.

His parents initially thought spelling bees might be a good fit for their son, an avid reader, when a teacher told them that he was succeeding in the classroom, said Vani Kapaganty, Abhiram’s mother.

When he encounters a challenging or unfamiliar word, Kapaganty listens for diacritical marks, like accent marks, that could indicate a word's spelling and carefully considers the language of origin.
"If the root is German, if it's pronounced like 'ch,' you should probably spell it 'sch,'" Kapaganty said, giving an example of his competition thought process.

Kapaganty’s got a pragmatic perspective of the competition. He wants to do well and hopes he can win the title (along with a trophy, $40,000 cash and thousands more in prizes), but he said he’s excited that he gets to compete for the first time at a relatively young age.

If he doesn’t win, he’ll know what it’s like to compete at the national level, which could work to his advantage if he makes it back in his next three years of eligibility.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee begins Sunday. Here's how to watch.

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