Before she was 2, her mother recalls, Lori Anne Madison was reading her first book — Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop.” At age 3, she competed in her first spelling bee.
Now 6, Lori Anne is the youngest contestant on record to qualify for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Her ticket to the competition that begins Tuesday was the word “vaquero,” meaning cowboy, which she spelled correctly to win the Prince William County, Va., bee.
It will get tougher onstage at National Harbor, Md., when the home-schooled girl from Woodbridge, Va., faces 277 opponents, most of whom are at least twice her age. Last year, the winning word was “cymotrichous,” which means having wavy hair. The previous winner spelled “stromuhr,” which is a medical instrument.
But Speller 269, who will compete for $30,000, among other prizes, reports that she isn’t particularly nervous and isn’t cramming.
“I just do as much as I can,” Lori Anne said. “I don’t stress out about it. Plus, I’m 6. I can always go back next year.” She said she hopes to win at age 8 or 9.
Sorina Vlaicu Madison, Lori Anne’s mother and primary teacher, said she and her daughter have no problem eschewing books and academic pursuits if the outside world is more inviting or their minds are tired. That means swim lessons, play dates, games like Angry Birds on the Kindle, and visits to an indoor play center called Kids N Motion.
Madison, a college health policy teacher, laughs at the assumption that she has driven her daughter to spelling heights, perhaps by sheer will or intolerance for failure.
“You can’t drill a 6-year-old,” Madison said. “You can’t really force them to do anything.”
Marcia Invernizzi, a University of Virginia education professor who studies language, said people who think the spelling bee is all about rote memorization and “freakish” children are mistaken.
“These kids are prodigies just like a young violinist or a pianist,” Invernizzi said. She said great spellers memorize a lot of words, but know they can’t possibly learn them all. Instead, they learn to break down words and analyze how their parts fit into the patterns of English.
That someone Lori Anne’s age can grasp such concepts, Invernizzi said, is “pretty remarkable.”
Lori Anne’s favorite way to study for bees is through a site called spellingcity.com. Sometimes she picks up books, such as Verbomania, that have lists of words that she likes to read in her flowery pink car seat in the back of her mom’s sport-utility vehicle as they shuttle from one activity to another.
SpellingCity offers, among other games, a quizzing tool called “hang mouse,” akin to the game of hangman. She works on a desktop computer in a home office she shares with her mother.
Madison said Lori Anne has a natural ability with language and an insatiable appetite to learn. She likes to read books from the Percy Jackson series and The Kane Chronicles, both by Rick Riordan.
She loves the thrill of competition. So when she was told about spelling bees — the stage, the microphone, the understanding of a possible “cute, shiny trophy,” as her mom put it — there was little hesitation.
Similarly, Lori Anne is proud of the gold medals she earned in a National Classical Etymology Exam and a National Mythology Exam.
On a local swim club, Lori Anne likes especially to compete with — and sometimes beat — older boys.
Asked what advice she might have for other children who want to learn to spell like a champion, Lori Anne said, “Swimming helps because when you see all the practice, all the hard work [pay off] when you go to a meet, it inspires you to do the same in spelling.”
(As she was being interviewed at a Panera Bread outlet near her home, Lori Anne apologized for pausing to eat. “I have a mouthful of delicious grilled cheese and I just can’t help it,” she said.)
Mary Brown, one of her swimming coaches, said Lori Anne is exceptionally driven but always a good sport in the pool, win or lose. One day, Lori Anne startled Brown when the coach encouraged her to play with some of her new teammates.
“No,” she told Brown. “I need to focus on my next race.”
Still, she remains a bubbly 6-year-old. During a hard swim practice one recent afternoon, Lori Anne leaned over to chat with a teammate as she was motoring down a lane with a kickboard.
If Lori Anne struggles with anything, her mother said, it is listening.
Debates over the necessity of vegetables and the merits of iron-enriched animal crackers (quite healthy, Lori Anne once insisted) can become intellectual duels.
“It’s like arguing in front of the Supreme Court every day,” Madison said. “You have to really have a good case about why she needs to do something.”
Madison said she and her husband, Alex Madison, a lawyer, decided to home-school their only child because administrators told them that she was bored when she was briefly enrolled at a private school.
Round one of the national bee starts Tuesday with testing via computer. On Wednesday, rounds two and three, with all spellers onstage. The semifinals and finals are Thursday, with the final round broadcast in prime time on ESPN.
Until the bee starts, Lori Anne is taking the competition seriously but enjoying the ride. It seems like it’s always been that way.
Consider Lori Anne’s favorite word — the German sprachgefühl. The Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate.” Lori Anne has another definition.
“It means love of language,” she explained. “By the way, which I have.”