While many seventh graders come home from school and spend the night playing sports or maybe playing Xbox, Sulayman Abdirahman spends his afternoons reviewing flashcards and self-testing how to spell words, all to better prepare for spelling bees.
His hard work has paid off so far: The Mattapan Brooke Charter School seventh-grader won his school spelling bee and went on to win the 14th annual BCYF Citywide Boston Spelling Bee in March.
However, his work was not done after that competition. She is now preparing for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, in late May.
For the city spelling bee, Sulayman and the other competitors worked with a list of words, now the list is the complete dictionary.
“I have been studying quite a bit. … I’m trying to relax a little bit more, but I’m still studying,” Sulayman told Boston.com in an interview in late March. “A lot of people have been telling me, ‘When you get to DC, enjoy it. Don’t think of this as if you have to win.’”
Victorious the city bee
To qualify for the national competition, Sulayman first had to qualify and win the citywide competition. Even before that, he competed in her class and school spelling bees.
The first time he won the classroom spelling bee and moved up to the school level was in fourth grade. At the class level, the competition is mandatory, Sulayman said. But still he went the extra mile, memorizing every word on the list of options.
In 2019, Sulayman placed second in the citywide spelling bee. To study for that competition, Sulayman said she wrote about 8,000 words on flashcards to test herself.
His English and language arts and history teacher, Sean McKenna, said Sulayman has been on people’s radar since that first citywide competition.
“It was very exciting [when he won]McKenna said. “He competed in Boston when he was in fourth grade. He was still teaching at the school at the time, so there were emails around the school and a lot of rumors about this fourth grader competing against seventh and eighth graders. He beat everyone in our school that year handily. He wasn’t even close.
After a break from competing due to COVID-19, Sulayman returned to racing this year. McKenna said he believes if COVID hadn’t happened, Sulayman would have qualified for the national competition even sooner.
Now, Sulayman said he uses flashcards to study, which are easier because they include more information, such as the correct pronunciation of the word and the country of origin. One of his favorite techniques for spelling challenging words is using prefixes and suffixes, Sulayman said.
“Many words in the English dictionary have prefixes and suffixes. … Like you have cephalopod: like cephalo- is a prefix to something … and then a -pod is a suffix to something else, so you can tell how a word is spelled,” Sulayman said.
Sulayman’s spelling skills don’t just shine in competition, McKenna said.
“A lot of times in class, I start to stop spelling something on the board. And I’ll say, ‘Sulay, spell this for me and he’ll help me do it,’” McKenna said. “There are cases where other students get mad at me and say, ‘Why don’t you ask the rest of us?’ and I say ‘When there’s a professional in the building, ask the professional,’ and that’s certainly what it is”.
McKenna attributes much of Sulayman’s success to the hard work and support he receives from his family.
“I had very little to do with the process of studying him. I can’t take an ounce of credit for absolutely any of his successes,” McKenna said. “His dedication to him is so impressive. She was very excited for him, very excited for his family.”
The city’s spelling bee that ended March 19 was long and stressful, both Sulayman and his mother, Farhia Ali, said. Sulayman remembers that there was a rowdy crowd, although many people left before he won because the rounds were so long.
“It was great. It was really exhausting, like everything, because there were a lot of rounds. It was a lot longer than any other spelling bee I’ve ever been in,” Sulayman said. “But in the end, I was happy, of course, I was excited about that”.
He lasted 12 normal rounds and 29 final rounds in the competition, according to the boston globe.
“I think with him and the person who got second place, there was more than an hour [of it] just each other, going back and forth,” Ali said. “That was stressful, really like, ‘Who’s it going to be?’ Round trip. Then, once, they were both wrong. So it was a very tough competition.”
Sulayman’s winning word, “apres”, was short, just five letters. But those five letters bought him a ticket to Nationals.
bound for Washington
Although he hopes to enjoy the trip as well, he has not stopped studying.
“It has a schedule that we have put on our fridge every week, so we can look at it,” Ali said. “The weekend is about six hours. Weekdays are three to four hours after school. … He has given up his free time using Xbox and gaming and gaming with his friends, so he is making a lot of sacrifices to study.”
The day before spelling bees is even more intense, sometimes studying up to 10 hours in preparation, frantically reviewing everything he’s worked on so far.
Sulayman will compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee from May 31 to June 2.
Once the tournament starts, the nerves don’t end. Both Sulayman and Ali said the spelling bee experience is stressful and nationals will be no exception.
“It’s really very stressful. [to think], ‘OK, what’s the next word? Will he make it?’” Ali asked. “He likes to take his time and think about the word and ask questions. Just wait for him to finish spelling the word, and then you know the person is like, ‘Oh, right.’ I can’t stay still.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a little different from any other spelling bee Sulayman has ever competed in. There are obvious differences, like having to travel to compete and competing against a larger field (this year’s competition has 234 competitors), but there are also more nuanced changes.
“It will be much longer. … It’s a week, although it’s not like a week of pure competition,” Sulayman said. “Because we are in Washington, they have a rented hotel for families. So I’m going to sleep in a different place. It’s going to be a completely different mindset.”
The competition also has a slightly different format than other spelling bees. For starters, instead of having a limited list of words you may be asked to spell, this competition uses the entirety of the complete Merriam-Webster dictionary. In the second level of each round (prelims, quarterfinals, semi-finals and finals) there is also a multiple choice question on the meaning of the words for each participant.
Generally, competitors may request a word pronunciation, definition, use in a sentence, part of speech, source language(s), and alternate pronunciation(s), in accordance with the rules of the competition. 2022 competition.
Sulayman said that a word’s definition and usage in a sentence can help you remember where you may have seen a word before, which can help you remember the spelling. One of the most helpful requests he can make is the source language, he said.
“If the source language is Greek, it might be spelled differently (than if) the source language was French or something,” Sulayman said. “You can get clues about sounds and letters because of the source language.”
From a young age, Sulayman has loved reading, Ali said, something he believes has helped him with spelling bees.
“He always finishes reading the level they have in the classroom and they have to ask for more books, but at a much higher level for him to read,” Ali said. “I think that’s one of the things that helped him.”
The National Spelling Bee will air on ION from May 31 to June 2, with the finals hosted by LeVar Burton.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for him,” McKenna said. “Because of the student that he is and the support that he has from his family, he will have many opportunities in his life… and this is an incredible example.”
Ali said she’s excited Sulayman is in DC with other kids who have similar interests.
“This is a great opportunity. I’m really happy that the city of Boston is offering this to young students to explore something, you know, besides sports or now the extracurricular activities that they do in schools,” Ali said. “It’s great that they have the spelling bee for students who are interested in reading and spelling words.”
Sign up for the newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest news from Boston.com