On the Record with Max Foley

DeKALB – Spelling isn’t Max Foley’s favorite subject in school, but he happens to be pretty good at it.

Max Foley, 11, son of Miles and Stephanie Foley of DeKalb, is going into the sixth grade at St. Mary School in DeKalb.

He came in second place in his school’s spelling bee and won the regional spelling bee held at Sycamore High School in March.

At the regional bee, the top two spellers were Max, a fifth grader, and Bella Rocush, a sixth grader, both from St. Mary’s. Bella actually won the school’s spelling bee, and Max came in second. The top two from the school bee advance to the regional bee, and Max and Bella competed for a number of rounds before Max won on the word “oracle.”

After winning the regional spelling bee, Max competed in the prelimary round of the National Spelling Bee, which was held virtually and televised on ESPN3 on June 12. To ensure spelling bee’s competition integrity, certain rules had to be followed because it was virtual. Spellers had to keep their hands visible at all times and each speller had a proctor to supervise their round. Jeff Smith, assistant superintendent of the DeKalb Regional Office of Education, volunteered his time to proctor for Max.

Although Max didn’t advance to the next round, he said participating in the spelling bee was “a great experience,” one he hopes to repeat in person next year.

Max’s mom, Stephanie, helped him prepare for the National Spelling Bee using a study booklet that was provided.

“I always knew Max was very bright and an avid reader, but it was only when I helped him study that I knew how intelligent he is,” Stephanie Foley said. “I was trying to pronounce words on the list and he was correcting me and spelling the words correctly. I quickly realized he was a better speller than me.”

Both of his parents said they are proud of his success and hard work that led him to participate in the National Spelling Bee.

“He was so composed and handled it so well, even though he was only an 11-year-old fifth grader at the time,” Stephanie Foley said. “We’re so proud of him.”

MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton spoke to Max about his success at the spelling bees and how he studies for the spelling competitions.

Milton: How did you advance to the National Spelling Bee?

Foley: In school, each class has a contest in the classroom, then we have a school spelling bee the week of Catholic Schools Week. The school spelling bee was early February, the regional DeKalb County spelling bee was March 13 at Sycamore High School and the preliminary round of the National Spelling Bee was held virtually online June 12.

Milton: How was the preliminary round?

Foley: The event was broadcast on ESPN3, and it was almost like a Zoom or FaceTime meeting. The audience could see the screen, the contestant, three judges and the word on the screen. There were three rounds: spelling a word from the study book, selecting the correct vocabulary definition of a word from the study book and spelling a word from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary. More than 200 kids were in the preliminary round, and only about 75 went on to the next round. There were kids in fourth through eighth grades, but most were seventh or eighth graders.

Milton: What words were you given to spell?

Foley: My first word was “Erewhonian,” which I misspelled. It’s from a science-fiction book. The definition in the dictionary is “of or suggestive of the utopia described in the book “Erewhon” whose people dealt with disease as a crime and destroyed machinery lest machines destroy them an Erewhonian fear of automation.”

Milton: How did you study for spelling bee?

Foley: I looked through the study booklet and highlighted words. I also downloaded the spelling bee’s app Word Club, where you get points at spelling correctly like a game.

Milton: What are some words you spelled correctly in the spelling bees?

Foley: Some words that I remember spelling correctly are caretaker, oracle and erroneous. Sometimes my answers were guesses, but usually I just think of how the word should be spelled, and I spell it that way.

Milton: Do you do well at spelling in school?

Foley: Usually my teacher has a pre-test for spelling, and if you get 100%, you don’t have to take the real test. I almost always get a 100% on the pre-test.

Milton: Why do you think you’re good at spelling?

Foley: I’m not sure why I’m good at spelling. I read a lot, which I think helps. I read “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which is a 700-page book, in a week. Usually words just appear in my head, I just know the correct spelling. But sometimes even I mess up letters. One word I always misspell is weird. I just always try to remember “I before E, except after C or sounding like A as in neighbor or weigh.”

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.