Tag Archives: spelling bee

720. How Fred Learns Vocabulary with the New York Times Spelling Bee (with Fred Eyangoh)

Fred often plays spelling games on his phone during his lunch break, and he has discovered lots of new words as a result. In this episode I talk to Fred about his process of discovering and understanding new words and I talk about learning vocabulary with online dictionaries.

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Introduction Transcript

Hello listeners, 

I hope you are doing well out there in all the various parts of LEPland. Are you ready for a new episode? Yes, you are? That’s why you’re listening to this? Yes, that makes sense. It would be pretty weird if you had pressed play on this episode and thought “Wait wait! I’m not ready! I must immediately reasses my life choices. What am I doing?” I’m assuming you’re ready for this episode, and that you are fully on-board and prepared mentally, physically and spiritually for another dose of English.

This episode is called How Fred Learns Vocabulary with the New York Times Spelling Bee.

Fred Eyangoh is my guest for this one and he is a returning guest, as some longer-term listeners might remember. Fred has been on the podcast a few times before. Basically, I know Fred from doing stand-up comedy at English language comedy shows in Paris. He’s a stand up comedian, like me. Fred is also a bit of a movie geek and he loves to talk about films of various kinds. His last appearance on this podcast was when we talked about Avengers Endgame a couple of years ago.

But this episode is not about films. We decided instead to talk about how Fred expands his vocabulary in English using the New York Times Spelling Bee. 

Do you know what a spelling bee is? It’s not an insect that is good at spelling words and making honey. No. A spelling bee is basically a spelling competition. Often spelling bees are done in the USA in schools. 

But the New York Times Spelling Bee is basically just a spelling game that they publish in their daily newspaper, and it’s for adults or students, not children. It’s the sort of thing you can do on your lunch break or while commuting to work or college or something and it involves trying to spell as many words as possible from a limited number of letters.

In case you’re wondering, the ‘bee’ part in ‘spelling bee’ is nothing to do with the insects that make honey. The word bee here is actually derived from the middle-English word ‘bene’ (spelled B E N E, and middle-English is not used any more of course) which basically meant when neighbours get together to do an activity that helps someone. A sort of group activity in which everyone gets together to help someone in the community. Somehow along the way this word became associated only with these competitions designed to help kids improve their spelling, and the word ended up being spelled “bee”. As far as I know, there are no other uses of the word “bee” like this. So, you can just learn the phrase “spelling bee” to mean a spelling competition.

So, this episode is all about ways to expand your vocabulary. Recently Fred has found that this little spelling game has introduced him to various new words, and this has been an inroad into English for him, so we decided to talk about it on the podcast.

The overall point here is that there are many ways to expand your vocabulary. You can come across words while reading books or articles, you can find them by listening to podcasts, you can find them by checking transcripts and by using subtitles, by playing computer games, by checking song lyrics, or by playing word games. There are probably other ways that you can think of. There are many ways to come across new words.

I should say that as well as doing these word games, Fred is also a big reader of books and a film nerd. He watches loads of films and TV series in English and investigates the English he hears (or sees if he has the subtitles on) and when he came to the flat to record this episode he had a copy of Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Caroll which he had been reading, and that book is full of word play, poetry and little jokes. So, there are many ways that Fred gets English into his life, but in this episode we’re focusing on how Fred uses this particular little spelling game.

This leads to some discussion about the steps I think you should take when discovering new words, and this relates to one of the recommendations made by Michael from Poland which was to use certain online monolingual English/English dictionaries because they help you to find not only definitions of new words, examples and correct pronunciation but also plenty of synonyms and as you explore the definitions of words you end up discovering other words and it all expands outwards like the branches of a tree.

So this is the overall point – find words in whichever way that you enjoy, but try to go a bit further and explore those words using good English/English dictionaries. Notice how one word leads to another, notice what kind of words they are (nouns, adjectives, verbs etc) and how they fit into a sentence (including which other words they usually go with or collocate with, like certain prepositions, and if they are followed by certain forms like -ing verbs or infinitive verbs), notice how the words are pronounced and if there are several acceptable ways to say them, make note of the spelling and watch out for discrepancies between the spelling and pronunciation, consider if the words are from a specific register (e.g. medical language, legal language, old-fashioned literary language or just general English), if they tend to be from American English or British English. All that information is available from a good dictionary. Also, perhaps consider recording your new words in a notebook or a flashcard app like anki, try to use new words yourself and then try to notice the words again and again as you keep listening and reading. That’s the overall point of this episode.

This is a conversation between two people and so you are going to hear the usual moments when we get sidetracked and there are various conversational tangents, little jokes and things as we make each other laugh. So, it might be a bit tricky to keep up with it all, so just bear that in mind and get ready. 

As you will notice, quite a lot of specific items of vocabulary come up during this conversation and it might be a little difficult for you to keep track of them all, but I will be repeating them at the end of the episode, and they’re also written on the episode page on my website if you’d like to take a look.

Right, so I hope you can keep up with all of this. There will be a part 2 of this conversation, where we explore some word quizzes about commonly confused words in English, but now let’s listen to Fred talking about how he uses the New York Times Spelling Bee to expand his vocabulary, and here we go.


Try the New York Times Spelling Bee here (although you need to register to keep playing) www.nytimes.com/puzzles/spelling-bee

Ending Transcript

So, that was Fred Eyangoh talking about how the New York Times Spelling Bee has helped with his vocabulary, which in turn helps with things like pronunciation and improving your pronunciation helps with your speaking and also your listening skills, and improving your listening skills helps to improve your ability to understand people, and the more you understand people the more you’re able to notice more language that people are using and the cycle continues, and all the while your confidence is improving. This is the idea anyway. Certain habits or at least certain mindsets can help to put you in a positive cycle of language acquisition.

You also heard at the end there how we were about to start a word quiz on the Collins Dictionary website. In part 2 of this conversation we will continue where we stopped. So the next episode will be another one with Fred, exploring some commonly confused words, most of which are homophones – words which sound the same but are spelled differently. So check out that episode too when it arrives. There should be more learning opportunities for you there, and also some silly jokes and tangents too from Fred and me.

Let me now recap some specific things from the conversation you’ve just heard.

My 5 favourite dictionaries again

Look beyond just the definition. These are resources designed specifically to help you build your vocabulary.

Some of them have other resources too, like vocabulary quizzes based on things like idioms, synonyms and commonly confused words, and you’ll hear more about that in part 2 of this conversation as I just said.

Macmillan Sounds App – helps you learn the phonemic script. Download it from the Macmillan website www.macmillaneducationapps.com/soundspron/ 

Words & phrases mentioned

Repeat the word stress and give an example of each.

Admittedly (adv) (use this when you are saying something that weakens the importance or force of what you have just said) “Daily practice is so important in language learning, although admittedly, I don’t follow my own advice when it comes to working on my French”

Horrendous (adj) (something unpleasant or shocking, horrific, appalling, awful, ghastly) “Getting sick in a foreign country can be an absolutely horrendous experience”

Severe (adj) (very intense or serious) “I had to stop working because I had a severe headache”

Word stress

  • Embarrassed 
  • Important 
  • Necessary
  • Accessory

Umbrella terms (all these ones are nouns)

  • Invertebrate
  • Arthropod (invertebrates that include arachnids, insects and crustaceans)
  • Insect (types of arthropod)
  • Flea (types of insect)
  • Arachnid (aka spiders – types of arthropod, but not insects)
  • Crustacean (also types of arthropod which are neither insects or spiders – includes crabs, lobsters, shrimp)

Chitin (what insects’ exoskeletons are made of)

Worms 

Elated (adj) (synonyms – joyful, delighted, excited, proud)

Heart bypass (noun)  – According to the NHS A coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) is a surgical procedure used to treat coronary heart disease. It diverts blood around narrowed or clogged parts of the major arteries to improve blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart. We laughed about the fact that the guy in the example had two heart bypasses, but of course this is a serious procedure that a lot of people have to have. 

To take something with a pinch of salt (UK) – this means to be sceptical about something, or to not completely believe everything that someone says. “Take online medical advice with a pinch of salt. Sometimes it’s not completely accurate.”

To take something with a grain of salt (US)
Allele (noun) (a specific scientific term from genetic biology, pronounced “uh leal” – I remember this word coming up in my biology A level lessons when I was 17, but I haven’t heard it since, until this conversation. I failed that A level by the way.)

Pelf (noun) (money, especially if it has been illegally obtained – this word is hardly ever used today, so don’t worry about it. Collins is the only dictionary that lists it) Synonyms might be swag, booty – but those words aren’t really used either, unless it’s some pirate adventure story set in the 18th century)  

Pilfer (verb) (a slang word meaning to steal – it’s still used but I would probably go for the words “nick” or “pinch” instead) “Someone’s nicked my wallet!” “I pilfered some biscuits from my flatmate’s cupboard.” “Someone’s pinched my mobile phone”.

Quid (noun) (slang word meaning pounds, it’s both the singular and plural form) “A pint of beer in a pub can cost over 7 quid these days. It’s daylight robbery!”

That’s it for this episode then. Part 2 should arrive soon, and it will be called something like Learning Vocabulary with Collins Dictionary Word Quizzes (with Fred Eyangoh) Commonly Confused Words.

So, sit tight until that one arrives!

I hope all is well in LEPland. Don’t be a ninja – write something in the comment section, and by the way, writing one comment like “I’m writing a comment, so I’m not a ninja any more” this doesn’t completely revoke your ninja status, because you have to stay out of the shadows you know!

Speak to you soon, but for now – bye bye bye bye bye