Queen Bee: Fairfax County Teen Places 21st in National Spelling Contest
Akshita Balaji, 14, won her first spelling bee at age six while visiting family in India.
At the time, her father, Balaji Kannan, says while he and her mother were impressed, they had no idea what the future would hold for Akshita.
But on Sunday night, (June 27), their daughter competed on live TV as a semifinalist in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“I mean we thought ok, she won a competition, we moved on and had no idea that she could make it big,” he said. Akshita was one of 30 students from across the country who went head-to-head, virtually, in the annual competition, that aired on ESPN platforms at 7 p.m. EST..
After her first victory in India, Akshita went on to win her third grade class spelling bee at McNair Elementary School in Herndon. She said she went over classroom spelling prep sheets at the time, thought she’d give it a go and if she won, surprise her parents with the class honor. In fourth grade, she again won the class spelling bee and this time won the entire elementary school’s competition, her father said.
“It was around then that we said, oh this is something she is doing consistently and enjoying it -- without much preparation,” Kannan said. “So we started working with her on the dictionary.”
Akshita made her way from A to Z in an elementary dictionary, learning every word, as well as the roots and origins of English language, her parents said. She developed a routine with her parents, where they’d pepper her with words early in the morning and late at night, working together to help her improve.
“My wife and I will pick out words that are in the news, like xenophobia, making sure she can both spell it and identify the correct meaning,” Akshita’s father said. “In spelling bees, you have to know what words mean too and in a dictionary a word can have three or four separately-listed meanings -- sometimes they ask a question that pertains to the second meaning so you really need to know them all.”
Akshita, a rising freshman who just graduated from Carson Middle School, credits her Fairfax County Public School teachers as well with supporting her along the way.
“In sixth grade, the first time I made it to nationals, I was really tense, stressed out and my teacher picked up on it,” she said, adding she’d love to give a “shout-out” to instructor Georgina Chin.
“She would quiz me during class, stopping a science lesson to drill me on words she’d come across in the textbook,” Akshita said. “I remember the whole class going silent, and then everyone cheering for me when I’d get it right.”
That year, 2019, Akshita was the Fairfax County Spelling Bee champion and ultimately tied for 51st at the national level. Akshita is sponsored by the Fairfax County Council PTA, which is the regional sponsor of the Scripps National Spelling Bee Program.
In 2020, the National Spelling Bee took a break amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Akshita again took the title of Fairfax County Spelling Bee champion.
On Sunday, she graced the national stage again, one of two Virginia public school students to make it this far. This is the first time in at least a decade that a Fairfax County student has been among the final 30 spellers in the national competition, according to the Fairfax County Council PTA.
From there, the field was narrowed to 11 spellers who will advance to the July 8 finals. Akshita tied for 21st place out of 209 national qualifiers.
Akshita says some of the hardest words she’s come across are “random” ones of Polish origin, but that despite not speaking Polish she delights in being able to spell them anyhow.
“When somehow the rules of language come together, I can identify a hidden root or something in there and I’m able to do it, it is really satisfying to see a word is put together exactly how you’d imagine it.”