Charles Millard considers himself a wizard of two things: Dungeons and Dragons and spelling.
The eighth-grader and two-time Frederick County spelling bee champion will compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee next week as speller number 146. There, he will face 564 students from across the county whittled down from a pool of more than 11 million eligible fourth- through eight-graders.
Like his wizard persona in his favorite board game, Charles will have to complete a series of correct spells if he hopes to make it through the first elimination round.
“I have gone over the spelling of each and every one of the words,” Charles said on Thursday, pointing to a packet of 600 words provided by the competition.
He was halfway through memorizing their definitions, which would be crucial to the first and second rounds of the competition.
On the first day, all the spellers gather in the auditorium for a written exam, and their score determines if they progress to the later phases of the competition. All the spellers then take the stage for round two, but only those who spell their first word correctly — from the packet of 600 words — and score high enough on the exam, will proceed, Charles explained.
In his first appearance at the national competition in 2018, Charles misspelled his first word, “germon,” a French word for a type of tuna, which knocked him out of contention.
“I’m feeling more prepared than I was last year,” Charles said. “Last year, I didn’t study that much.”
This year, Charles is aiming to score high enough on the exam to make it past the first two rounds, and he’s found that his Latin classes at Frederick Classical Charter School come in handy.
Take the word Pittosporum.
It’s Greek derived from Latin, Charles said. He knows the root of the second half of the word. “-sporum,” which is a seed or spore of a plant. He’s less familiar with “Pitto,” but he already knows he’s looking for a spelling that relates to plants.
On the exam, which is a series of multiple choice questions, identifying the roots of a word from the definition is an effective strategy, he said.
Knowing the sound that vowels make in other languages — such as the “ie” in the German term “auf Wiedersehen” in last year’s bee — is another study strategy Charles uses for the spelling portion, rather than opening a dictionary and memorizing words one by one, he said.
His dictionary at home has a section all on Proto-Indo-European roots. While Charles does not “read the dictionary,” he does read this section.
Since Charles is in eighth grade, this is the final year will be eligible to compete in the national bee. But he’s laid solid groundwork for another student to follow in his footsteps next year, said Harry Hanna, curriculum coordinator at Frederick Classical Charter.
Charles, who was in Hanna’s third-grade history class, approached him about starting a Spelling Bee Club five years ago. Hanna ran the club until this year, which at its peak had almost 30 students.
Charles stands out from his peers with his knowledge of alternative pronunciations of words. If there is more than one pronunciation of a word — even if it’s rare and specific to a field of science — Charles always knows it, Hanna said.
“He has a natural affinity toward the words. ... I’m a pretty good speller, but not like him,” Hanna said.
For his parents, Laura and Charles Millard, it has been exciting to watch their only son find a topic he is so passionate about, though they have never pushed him to study or compete in spelling bees.
“I want him to find something he loves, and he loves to read. So, it definitely matches his talents and love,” Laura Millard said.
She will take the week off from work to travel to the national bee with Charles, and Frederick County Public Libraries has agreed to cover the hotel cost. Their first trip to the national competition was eye-opening.
“It was pretty interesting the first year when we got there. They’re pretty intense kids. Some of them study a lot,” she said.
Charles has devoured books from a young age, but, like other 14-year-olds, he also enjoys video games and having friends over to play board games. Overall, he’s a pretty easygoing kid, Laura Millard said.
To prepare the next generation of potential spelling bee champions, Frederick Classical Charter launched a Jr. Spelling Club to prepare kindergarten through third-grade students. Interest ebbs and flows, but the school intends to keep offering spelling opportunities.
“The school community, our families, are very supportive of the program,” Hanna said. “We’re looking for someone else to shine next after Charles.”