SELMA – It was tense in the old cafeteria at Andrew Jackson Elementary on the morning of Oct. 12. Twelve fifth-graders sat rigid on their metal chairs as they waited for their number to be called. The morning marked the first in a series of spelling bees throughout Selma Unified.

The winners say it was a combination of confidence, avid reading and preparation that paid off in the end.

Monica Cruz Perez bested the rest of the fifth-grade competitors that morning and said she reinforced words she was having trouble with by not just reading them, but writing them and saying them out loud.

“I went through [the master list] and the words I got wrong I’d write them on a piece of paper and write them again and again. If you get it right, but you think you need more practice on it, just write it down. Just keep practicing it,” she said as words of advice to spelling bee competitors at other schools.

“We’re already proud of you so take a deep breath and relax,” Principal Vicki Cuevas told the students before the competition began.

Selma Unified Assistant Superintendent Teresa Wood served as the word master for the event picking words at random from lists that increased in difficulty as the competition went on.

Students were allowed to simply spell the word aloud if they felt confident they were correct, or first write it out on a slip of paper before spelling it. Wood first read each word, used it in a sentence and even gave the definition if students requested it.

The students spelled out words such as motto, grumble, chrome, drought and chorus. At times it was silent letters that proved challenging and eliminated spellers. At other times, it was tricky letter combinations.

Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade spellers would compete that day. The top two spellers go on to the district level of competition on Nov. 2 at Garfield Elementary. From there, the first-place spellers in fifth and sixth grades will then compete at a Fresno County Office of Education spelling bee.

With first place secured by Perez, the competition was narrowed down to Jordan Alvarado and Christopher Rodriguez competing for second and third place.

It was "foreigner" that tripped up Alvarado. He took second for the spelling bee. Rodriguez took third having been stymied by "magazine."

The two also had advice for other students scheduled to compete in other elementary schools’ spelling bees throughout the district this week.

“I just tried as hard as I could and tried to get first,” Alvarado said. “Now I know what the word is so you just have to try your hardest and believe in yourself.”

“It’s very simple,” Rodriguez said. “You just have to believe in yourself. Nothing is ever accomplished without some enthusiasm.”

As Perez heads into the district competition in November, she says she’ll keep studying words to prepare. She thinks being an avid reader helps build her vocabulary, too, however she said she reads often simply for the fun of it.

“I read a lot because I enjoy it and I like it. I like a lot of books.”

Spelling accurately may not seem important to everyone, but Perez said her parents have encouraged her to be a good speller as they think it will benefit her as she starts a career.

“My dad and my mom said to get a good career later on, it’s important to spell well.”

In the audience that day among other families there to support their children was Perez’s mother, Silvia Perez.

“She feels happy and she’s proud of me,” Perez said.

Gayleen Gudgel, Belen Hoyt and Cynthia Hernandez served as judges for the event. They focused on hearing the students precisely as the competitors were sometimes soft spoken and often nervous during the competition.

“My advice is they should have fun,” Gudgel said of other students who will compete this month.

Hernandez said studying does pay off and encouraged participants to be ready.

“Be prepared and study the list. You can tell the ones who’ve studied,” she said.

Wood said that although spelling accurately may seem archaic to some, it’s an important part of having strong literacy skills.

“Our job is to promote literacy and help students in their reading, writing, speaking and listening. Correct spelling is a part of that. Good spelling and correct grammar are important where language is concerned.”

Wood encourages other elementary students who will be competing soon to have practice spelling bees where they spell out loud, in writing and in front of others to help allay nervousness.

“All those things would be very helpful, but especially if they can get their friends together and spell in front of an audience. The spelling bees are a little nerve wracking so if they just slow down and find someone who’ll use the words in sentences for them, that would be helpful. [The word] might be a homonym where it has multiple meanings and they have to listen very carefully to the meaning. All those little tips are important but the main thing is studying and even making flash cards for themselves.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or

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