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Twins among 22 spellers battling in regional bee

Before they even attempt to spell the first word at this Saturday’s eighth annual Regional Spelling Bee, Jessica and Laurelle Ditton will have set a record.

The Stafford County sixth-graders will be the first twins—and the first siblings—to compete against each other in the regional event. Sponsored by The Free Lance–Star, it will be held at 1 p.m. in the James Monroe High School auditorium.

Laurelle earned her chance to compete by winning a bee at Light-house Academy of Fredericksburg, the private school she attends. Jessica, who is home-schooled, earned her spot by besting Victoria Zisi in the Spotsylvania Regional Christian Home Schoolers’ bee.

“We’re both going to win, and we’re both going to go to the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said Laurelle, who is the taller and more talkative of the two.

Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen. Only one of the 22 entrants—which include 2012 champ Drew Marino—can advance to the national contest. It will take place May 26 to June 1 in the Washington area.

No twins have ever participated in that event, although a pair of siblings did compete against each other in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1996. Wendy Guey beat her sister, Emily Guey, and went on to win the bee that year. Her winning word was “vivisepulture.”

The Ditton twins and younger brother Deuce got interested in spelling bees three years ago. Their mother, Karen Ditton, was home-schooling all three and needed an interesting way to teach spelling. Jeanine Zisi, Victoria’s mother, suggested she get them involved in bees.

Scripps provides contestant wannabes with a study list of words that are used in the early rounds of the national bee, a Word Club with spelling and vocabulary tests and, the Scripps study website for school spelling champions created in cooperation with Merriam–Webster.

The nifty thing about the website, Karen Ditton said, is that in addition to identifying which words are frequently misspelled or commonly confused, it breaks them down by country of origin and provides spelling tips.

“When I heard the word ‘crochet’ for the first time, I knew it was French and how it should be spelled because my mom had just gone over the rules,” Jessica said.

The “shay” sound of the last syllable, she realized, is spelled “chet” in French.

“Things like that made me fall in love with it,” Karen Ditton said of the information Scripps provides. “It was just a neat thing because it was broken down in steps so that a fourth-grader could say, ‘It’s spelled just like it sounds.’ It became our spelling curriculum for home school.”

All three Ditton siblings won a chance to compete in their home school association bee three years ago and had 16 days to learn the entire list of words. They didn’t advance to the next level that year, but Laurelle went on to win the spelling bee at her school last year and competed in the regional bee.

Jessica competed against Victoria Zisi last year, and the girls would high-five each other when they both got a word right. Victoria went on to win and competed in the regional bee. This year, Jessica beat her, a bittersweet victory since Victoria had been so supportive, Karen Ditton said.

Although they go to different schools, Laurelle and Jessica are used to competing against each other in gymnastics and 4–H. To prepare for Saturday’s bee, the girls have been using a well-thumbed stack of flash cards and the Merriam–Webster app on their iPod touches.

Jessica normally studies with her mom, and Laurelle usually gets her father, David Ditton, to work with her. But the girls sometimes study together, and their brother will call out “Good job!” when they spell a word correctly.

Jessica also spends a lot of time perusing the dictionary, and sees the words in her head when she’s asked to spell them. Avid reader Laurelle—she once stayed up until 5:30 a.m. to finish one of the Michael Vey series books by Richard Paul Evans—enjoys spotting words in her books that are on the bee list. She also likes to link them to images, which helps her remember how to spell them.

“One of the words on our grade list this year was delicatessen,” she said. “I just picked the sign at Wegmans because it’s spelled delicatessen instead of just deli.”

Jessica already has her outfit picked out for Saturday. She plans to wear her “good luck” dress, the sparkly blue one she paired with silver heels the day she beat Victoria in the district home school association competition. Laurelle is opting for something new.

Karen Ditton said that while her daughters know how to spell the words on the bee list, the competition will likely be determined by the harder words that aren’t on it. Participants face those as the rounds progress.

“It’s random luck until you get to the level of the kids in the final round at the national bee,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407