Speller

Dina Miranda, 14, is at Stanford Middle School on Thursday, May 23. She is heading to Washington D.C. next week to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the second year in a row.

There’s a story behind every word — what it means, where it comes from and why it’s pronounced certain ways.

And eighth-grader Dina Miranda is obsessed with finding them.

It’s how Miranda, 14, became the first Long Beach Unified School District student to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., a feat she accomplished last year. And next week, when she returns to the country’s capital, the Stanford Middle School student plans to channel her inner historian, drawing on her linguistic research in hopes of winning the national spelling competition.

“How I know different types of words, I just look at roots,” she said this week. “I look at different roots and stems, from different languages like Latin, Greek and French. Sometimes I look at language patterns, too.”

Miranda is not a spelling-bee stereotype as portrayed in movies. She doesn’t memorize every word in the dictionary. Instead, she uses her knowledge of language to try to spell whatever word comes her way.

“You just have to use your best guess,” she said. “Experience helps with that. So the more experience you have, the better off you are.

“When you’ve seen more words,” she said “you know how the languages work.”

In last year’s national competition, Miranda correctly spelled nephelognosy, laparotomy, polymorphous and piedmont.

But she fell in the seventh round — missing a word much shorter than most of the ones she nailed. That word: “orans,” the plural form of orant, a female figure in the posture of prayer in ancient Greek art.

Miranda was unfamiliar with the word. But besides that, Miranda recalled, it was also the stress — after three or four rounds of competitions that day — that lost her the spelling bee.

But, Miranda said, she’s learned from it.

“I need to stay calm under pressure and not overthink things,” Miranda said in an interview Thursday, May 23. “And to take what I’ve learned with roots and stems.”

For Miranda, it seems, spelling isn’t just about competition — it’s something she loves.

Miranda, her parents recalled, has had an insatiable curiosity for prose since she was 2 years old. The toddler’s first read, in fact, was a family postcard. Her father, Mel Miranda, said the toddler asked what an exclamation point was at the end of one of the sentences.

“We told her what it was,” he said, “and when she went back to read it, she had inflection based on the exclamation point — which is pretty amazing at that age.

“We look back at that,” the proud father said, “as her wanting to know everything and applying it.”

Now, with Miranda about to enter Poly High School next year, things have changed quite a bit.

The spelling whiz corrects her parents on their spelling or pronunciation at least a few times a week, her dad admitted with a laugh.

She has yet to exhibit such brashness with her teachers, however.

“I think she’s just too kind to embarrass me in front of the class,” said Christine Thai, Miranda’s seventh-grade English teacher. “But yes, she’s a stronger speller than I am, for sure.”

Which, with today’s technology — spellcheck and auto-correct — is quite an achievement for today’s youth, Thai added.

“In this generation,” Thai said, “they are so dependent on spellcheck when they’re texting and when they’re typing. There has been a decline in people knowing how to spell, and it’s very obvious when I have many of my students, and even accelerated classes, they can’t spell a simple word like ‘beginning.’”

Greg Tate, her current English teacher, has also noticed a decline in spelling during his 26-year career. But, he added, there are more students like Miranda — teachers and parents just need to feed their desire to learn.

“As her teacher,” he said, “it just goes to show that sometimes students have abilities that even outshine the adults that they deal with in their lives.”

The national spelling bee will take place from Monday to Thursday, May 27 to 30. ESPN will televise the three-day competition.

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