To bee or not to bee: Here’s how this kid earns $100/hr as a spelling coach

Spell “entrepreneur.”

Cole Shafer-Ray knows how to spell it — and how to be one.

Or should I say, bee one. (Buckle up, you’re in for a lot of puns.)

Winning words from every National Spelling Bee since 1925
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Winning words from every National Spelling Bee since 1925

Koinonia (2018)

  • Speller: Karthik Nemmani
  • Definition: The Christian fellowship or body of believers

Marocain (2017)

  • Speller: Ananya Vinay
  • Definition: A dress fabric of ribbed crepe, made of silk or wool or both.

Feldenkrais and Gesellschaft (2016)


  • Speller: Jairam Hathwar
  • Definition: used for a system of aided body movements intended to increase body awareness and ease tension.


  • Speller: Nihar Janga
  • Definition: a rationally developed mechanistic type of social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nunatak and Scherenschnitte (2015)


  • Speller: Gokul Venkatachalam
  • Definition: a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.


  • Speller: Vanya Shivashankar
  • Definition: the art of cutting paper into decorative designs.


Feuilleton and Stichomythia (2014)


  • Speller: Ansun Sujoe
  • Definition: a part of a European newspaper or magazine devoted to material designed to entertain the general reader : a feature section.


  • Speller: Sriram Hathwar
  • Definition: dialogue especially of altercation or dispute delivered in alternating lines (as in classical Greek drama).
(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Knaidel (2013)

  • Speller: Arvind Mahankali
  • Definition: a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming (as with soup, stew or fruit with which it is to be served) : a dumpling.
(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Guetapens (2012)

  • Speller: Snigdha Nandipati
  • Definition: an ambush : a snare : a trap.
(Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty Images)

Cymotrichous (2011)

  • Speller: Sukanya Roy
  • Definition: having the hair wavy.
(REUTERS/Molly Riley)

Stromuhr (2010)

  • Speller: Anamika Veeramani
  • Definition: an instrument for measuring the flow of viscous substances designed to measure the amount and speed of blood flow through an artery.
(Photo by Astrid Riecken/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Laodicean (2009)

  • Speller: Kavya Shivashankar
  • Definition: lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Guerdon (2008)

  • Speller: Sameer Mishra
  • Definition: something that one has earned or gained : a reward : a recompense : a requital.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Autochthonous (2004)

  • Speller: David Tidmarsh
  • Definition: indigenous, native, aboriginal—used especially of floras and faunas.
(Photo by Saul Loeb/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Appoggiatura (2005)

  • Speller: Anurag Kashyap
  • Definition: an accessory embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone and usually written as a note of smaller size.
(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Serrefine (2007)

  • Speller: Evan M. O'Dorney
  • Definition: a small forceps for clamping a blood vessel.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Ursprache (2006)

  • Speller:Katharine Close
  • Definition: a parent language; especially : one reconstructed from the evidence of later languages.

(Photo by Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Pococurante (2003)

  • Speller: Sai R. Gunturi
  • Definition: not concerned : indifferent : nonchalant.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Prospicience (2002)

  • Speller: Pratyush Buddiga
  • Definition: the act of looking forward : foresight.
(SHAWN THEW/AFP/Getty Images)

Succedaneum (2001)

  • Speller: Sean Conley
  • Definition: one that comes next after or replaces another in an office, position or role.

(Reuters Photographer / Reuters)

Demarche (2000)

  • Speller: George Abraham Thampy
  • Definition: any formal or informal representation or statement of views to a public official.

Logorrhea (1999)

  • Speller: Nupur Lala
  • Definition: pathologically excessive and often incoherent talkativeness.
(MARIO TAMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Chiaroscurist (1998)

  • Speller: Jody-Anne Maxwell
  • Definition: an artist who uses the arrangement or treatment of the light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art.
(Photo by Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Euonym (1997)

  • Speller: Rebecca Sealfon
  • Definition: a name well suited to the person, place or thing named.


Vivisepulture (1996)

  • Speller: Wendy Guey
  • Definition: the act or process of burying alive.

(Travis HEYING/AFP/Getty Images)

Xanthosis (1995)

  • Speller: Justin Tyler Carroll
  • Definition: a yellow discoloration of the skin from abnormal causes.

(JAMAL A. WILSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Antediluvian (1994)

  • Speller: Ned G. Andrews
  • Definition: of or relating to the period before the Flood described in the Bible.

(Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Kamikaze (1993)

  • Speller: Geoff Hooper
  • Definition: a member of a Japanese air attack corps in World War II assigned to make a suicidal crash on a target (as a ship).

Lyceum (1992)

  • Speller: Amanda Goad
  • Definition: a place for holding lectures or public discussions.
(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Antipyretic (1991)

  • Speller: Joanne Lagatta
  • Definition: preventing, removing or allaying fever.

Fibranne (1990)

  • Speller: Amy Marie Dimak
  • Definition: a fabric made of spun-rayon yarn.
(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Spoliator (1989)

  • Speller: Scott Isaacs
  • Definition: one that forcefully takes what is valuable from a place.
(Photo By Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Elegiacal (1988)

  • Speller: Rageshree Ramachandran
  • Definition: expressing sorrow or lamentation often for something now past : plaintive, nostalgic, melancholy.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Staphylococci (1987)

  • Speller: Stephanie Petit
  • Definition: a genus of nonmotile spherical eubacteria that occur singly, in pairs or tetrads and comprise a few parasites of skin and mucous membranes.

Odontalgia (1986)

  • Speller: Jon Pennington
  • Definition: toothache.

(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Milieu (1985)

  • Speller: Balu Natarajan
  • Definition: environment, setting.

(Handout . / Reuters) 

Luge (1984)

  • Speller: Daniel Greenblatt
  • Definition: a small sled used for coasting especially in Switzerland.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Purim (1983)

  • Speller: Blake Giddens
  • Definition: a Jewish festival celebrated on the 14th of Adar in commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman.

Psoriasis (1982)

  • Speller: Molly Dieveney
  • Definition: a chronic skin disease characterized by circumscribed red patches covered with white scales.

Sarcophagus (1981)

  • Speller: Paige Pipkin
  • Definition: a coffin made of stone, often ornamented with sculpture, and usually placed in a church, tomb or vault.

(Pete Marovich/MCT via Getty Images)

Elucubrate (1980)

  • Speller: Jacques Bailly -- he now serves as the official pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee
  • Definition: to work out or express by studious effort.
(Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Maculature (1979)

  • Speller: Katie Kerwin
  • Definition: an impression made from an intaglio engraved plate to remove ink from the recessed areas.

Deification (1978)

  • Speller: Peg McCarthy
  • Definition: the act or an instance of glorifying or exalting as of supreme worth or excellence.
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Cambist (1977)

  • Speller: John Paola
  • Definition: one who deals in bills of exchange or who is skilled in the science and practice of exchange.

Narcolepsy (1976)

  • Speller: Tim Kneale
  • Definition: a condition characterized by a transient compulsive tendency to attacks of deep sleep.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Incisor (1975)

  • Speller: Hugh Tosteson
  • Definition: a tooth adapted for cutting, especially one of the cutting teeth in mammals arising from the premaxillary bone of the upper jaw in front of the canines.

Hydrophyte (1974)

  • Speller: Julie Ann Junkin
  • Definition: a plant requiring an abundance of water for growth and growing in water or in soil too waterlogged for most other plants to survive.

(Pete Marovich/MCT via Getty Images)

Vouchsafe (1973)

  • Speller: Barrie Trinkle
  • Definition: choose to give by way of reply.
(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images )

Macerate (1972)

  • Speller: Robin Kral
  • Definition: to cause (solid matter) to become soft or separated into constituent elements by steeping in fluid.

Shalloon (1971)

  • Speller: Jonathan Knisely
  • Definition: a lightweight twilled fabric of wool or worsted used chiefly for linings of coats and uniforms.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Croissant (1970)

  • Speller: Libby Childress
  • Definition: a rich crescent-shaped roll.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Interlocutory (1969)

  • Speller: Susan Yoachum
  • Definition: of or belonging to an interruptive speech or question.
(Photo by Bill Clark/Getty Images)

Abalone (1968)

  • Speller: Robert L. Walters
  • Definition: a gastropod mollusk that clings to rocks tenaciously with a broad muscular foot and that has a nacre-lined shell perforated with a row of apertures.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Chihuahua (1967)

  • Speller: Jennifer Reinke
  • Definition: a very small round-headed large-eared short-coated dog reputed to predate Aztec civilization.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Ratoon (1966)

  • Speller: Robert A. Wake
  • Definition: a stalk or shoot arising from the root or crown of a perennial plant.

Eczema (1965)

  • Speller: Michael Kerpan Jr.
  • Definition: an acute or chronic noncontagious inflammatory condition of the skin that is characterized by redness, itching and vesicular lesions.
(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Sycophant (1964)

  • Speller: William Kerek
  • Definition: a base or servilely attentive flatterer and self-seeker.

Equipage (1963)

  • Speller: Glen Van Slyke III
  • Definition: material or articles used in equipping an organized group.
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Esquamulose (1962)

  • Speller: Nettie Crawford and Michael Day
  • Definition: not covered with or consisting of minute scales.

Smaragdine (1961)

  • Speller: John Capehart
  • Definition: of or relating to emerald : yellowish green in color like an emerald.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Eudaemonic (1960)

  • Speller: Henry Feldman
  • Definition: producing happiness : based on the idea of happiness as the proper end of conduct.

Catamaran (1969)

  • Speller: Joel Montgomery
  • Definition: a fast pleasure boat having two hulls joined by a framework that supports the mast or motor.
(Pete Marovich/MCT via Getty Images)

Syllepsis (1958)

  • Speller: Jolitta Schlehuber
  • Definition: the use of a word as an adjective or verb in grammatical agreement with only one of two nouns by which it is governed.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Schappe (1957)

  • Speller: Sandra Owen and Dana Bennett
  • Definition: a yarn or fabric of spun silk.

(Photo by Bill Clark/Getty Images)

Condominium (1956)

  • Speller: Melody Sachko
  • Definition: a building containing individually owned apartments.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Crustaceology (1955)

  • Speller: Sandra Sloss
  • Definition: a branch of zoology that treats of animals of a class of marine or freshwater arthropods.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Transept (1954)

  • Speller: William Cashore
  • Definition: the part lying or passing across a cross-shaped church that crosses at right angles to the greatest length.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Soubrette (1953)

  • Speller: Elizabeth Hess
  • Definition: a lady's maid in comedies who acts the part of a coquettish maidservant or frivolous young woman.

Vignette (1952)

  • Speller: Doris Ann Hall
  • Definition: a picture (as an engraving or photograph) that shades off gradually into the surrounding ground or the unprinted paper.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Insouciant (1951)

  • Speller: Irving Belz
  • Definition: exhibiting or characterized by an attitude of indifference especially to the impression created on others.

Meticulosity (1950)

  •  Speller: Diana Reynard and Colquitt Dean
  • Definition: the quality or state of being extremely careful in the consideration or treatment of details.

(Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Dulcimer (1949)

  • Speller: Kim Calvin
  • Definition: a wire-stringed instrument of trapezoidal shape that is played with light hammers held in the hands.

Psychiatry (1948)

  • Speller: Jean Chappelear
  • Definition: a branch of medicine that deals with the science and practice of treating mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.
(Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty Images)

Chlorophyll (1947)

  • Speller: Mattie Lou Pollard
  • Definition: the green coloring material of plants that is essential to photosynthesis.

Semaphore (1946)

  • Speller: John McKinney
  • Definition: a system of visual signaling (as between ships) in which the sender holds a flag in each hand and moves his arms to different positions according to a code alphabet.
(Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

There was no Scripps National Spelling Bee during the World War II years of 1943–45.

(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Sacrilegious (1942)

  • Speller: Richard Earnhart
  • Definition: characterized by or involving the unworthy or irreverent use of sacred persons, places, or things.

Initials (1941)

  • Speller: Louis Edward Sissman
  • Definition: the first letters of an individual's name and surname
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Therapy (1940)
  • Speller: Laurel Kuykendall
  • Definition: treatment of disease in animals or plants.
(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Canonical (1939)

  • Speller: Elizabeth Ann Rice
  • Definition: given wide acceptance : sanctioned, orthodox, authoritative.

Sanitarium (1938)

  • Speller: Marian Richardson
  • Definition: an institution for rest and recuperation.

Promiscuous (1937)

  • Speller: Waneeta Beckley
  • Definition: casual, careless, irregular, random.
(Photo by Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Interning (1936)

  • Speller: Jean Trowbridge
  • Definition: confining within prescribed limits especially during a war.

Intelligible (1935)

  • Speller: Clara Mohler
  • Definition: capable of being understood or comprehended.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Deteriorating (1934)

  • Speller: Sarah Wilson
  • Definition: becoming worse in quality, state, or condition.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Torsion (1933)

  • Speller: Alma Roach
  • Definition: the act of turning or twisting.

Knack (1932)

  • Speller: Dorothy Greenwald
  • Definition: a special ready capacity that is hard to analyze or teach.
(Photo by Robert Giroux/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Foulard (1931)

  • Speller: Ward Randall
  • Definition: a lightweight plainwoven or twilled silk usually printed with a small neat evenly spaced pattern.

Fracas (1930)

  • Speller: Helen Jensen
  • Definition: a noisy quarrel : brawl, fight, altercation.
(Photo by Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Asceticism (1929)

  • Speller: Virginia Hogan
  • Definition: rigorous abstention from self-indulgence.

Albumen (1928)

  • Speller: Betty Robinson
  • Definition: the white of an egg.

(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

 Luxuriance (1927)

  • Speller: Dean Lucas
  • Definition: the quality or state of being exuberantly rich and varied.
(Photo by Astrid Riecken/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Cerise (1926)

  • Speller: Pauline Bell
  • Definition: a moderate red that is slightly darker than claret, slightly lighter than harvard crimson, very slightly bluer and duller than average strawberry, and bluer and very slightly lighter than Turkey red.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Gladiolus (1925)

  • Speller: Frank Neuhauser
  • Definition: any plant of a genus of plants native chiefly to Africa with a few native to Europe and Asia that have sword-shaped leaves and spikes of brilliantly colored irregular flowers.
(Photo by Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

The three-time Scripps National Spelling Bee participant and 2015 runner-up has turned his orthographic prowess into a career coaching others on how to out-spell the competition.

The high school junior from Norman, Oklahoma, has 10 regular clients whom he charges $100 an hour. He also has a wanna-bee waiting list of more than 400.

“It’s a lot more lucrative than a minimum wage job that most of my high school peers get,” says Shafer-Ray, who coaches most of his clients once or twice a week via Skype.

To Bee or Not to Bee

Before he’ll accept a new student, Shafer-Ray conducts a free initial diagnostic session to determine if he and the student are an appropriate match.

“Basically, I see how good the speller is,” the 17-year-old says. “I give them tips on what they need to work on — what their strengths and weaknesses are — and they can see if they want to continue with coaching.”

If both student and teacher agree to go forward, Shafer-Ray designs a course for the student, crafting weekly assignments that focus on language patterns and word origins. 

In addition to the assignments, Shafer-Ray composes a customized list of spelling words and vocabulary words (Scripps added a multiple-choice vocabulary quiz as part of the preliminary rounds in 2013).

Before the next session, Shafer-Ray analyzes the words the students missed to address weaknesses and work on strategies. He says his method makes the experience as enjoyable for him as it is for the speller.

“Looking back on diagnostic sessions from spellers that I’ve had for almost a year and seeing where they are now, they’ve gotten so, so, so much better, and that is satisfying,” says Shafer-Ray, who started coaching in June 2017. “I’m still competitive, so I’m vicariously competitive through my students.”

Bee All You Can Bee

Among Cole’s hive of spellers is 12-year-old Jason Sorin.

Jason surprised his mom, Deborah, when he made it to the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee, where he tied for 41st after training with her for only eight weeks.

Deborah decided to hire a coach to help Jason compete this year — he’s speller No. 391 in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee, May 29, 30 and 31 — and chose Shafer-Ray based on the free advice and word lists she found on his website.

“I figured anyone that was that dedicated to giving away stuff for free probably had a lot of value to give for people who were willing to pay him,” Deborah says. “He’s worth every penny.”

In addition to coaching Jason on word origins and general spelling tips, Shafer-Ray provides time-saving lists for the spellers to study.

“The Bee used to give out word lists of 10,000 words, and now they don’t — they just use the dictionary, but clearly there are some shortcuts I wouldn’t have known about if it hadn’t been for Cole,” Deborah says. “Before we started working with Cole, Jason had about 11,000 or 12,000 words mastered, and now he’s at 25,000.”

Even at $100 an hour, Shafer-Ray is a bargain, according to Deborah, who points out that there are companies that advertise previous champs-turned-coaches for upwards of $200 per hour.

“We’re not coaching with him because he’s the cheapest,” Deborah says. “He’s really a much better value and I think knows a lot more than a lot of the adults who pretend to be experts in the field.”

A Spelling Bee Words List Worth Thousands

Shafer-Ray says coaching isn’t the most lucrative aspect of his business.

His spelling lists cast an even more enchanting, um, spell.

Available for download from his website, Shafer-Ray’s School Spelling Bee Supplement includes more than 1,200 words organized by grade level, along with his study tips and strategies for competing in school spelling bees.

That one sells for $35. He’s lost track of how many he’s sold.

He also receives private email requests for a variety of lists he’s created for the national-level competition, which are organized by themes like etymology and late-round words.

Those lists can fetch $200 to $300 each.

Then there’s the vaunted Master List.

Shafer-Ray says he started compiling the 90,000-word list nearly a decade ago, starting with the study materials his older brother used for a state spelling bee.

Since then, this busy bee has combined those lists with all of the study materials he’s utilized as a national participant, along with his compilation of Scripps National Spelling Bee records that date back to the 1990s.

He cultivates and edits the list, then determines the statistical probability that it will include the words asked during the national competition.

“I spent a whole lot of my summer consolidating and making a really, really, really strong list using the resources that I have,” Shafer-Ray says. “The reason people are so convinced by it is because it’s statistically proven to have every word based on past bee words — I think that’s a big part of my appeal.”

According to his website, since 2009 Shafer-Ray’s Master List has contained 97.18% of the surprise words asked at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Despite a swarm of offers, he’s adamant that the Master List is not for sale.

“I’m still getting emails to this day from people who want to buy the list,” Shafer-Ray says. “People have offered me in the thousands for that list.”

Wait, he could make how much for a list of spelling words?

“That’s what everybody says,” Shafer-Ray says, chuckling. “But I don’t think I could do it because that would ruin me long term.”

Buzz-worthy business

Why would someone spend that much money to transform their little cherub into a spelling cognoscente? The Scripps National Spelling Bee has become a big-business, buzz-worthy event that includes ESPN coverage of the final round as well as the following prizes for the winner:

  • $40,000 cash prize from Scripps
  • $2,500 savings bond from Merriam-Webster, along with a reference library
  • $400 worth of Encyclopedia Britannica reference works
  • A trip to New York City to appear on LIVE with Kelly and Ryan

All that, and the winner receives an engraved trophy — plus bragging rights to all those classmates back home who can’t spell “marocain” (the winning word at the 2017 Bee, it describes a type of dress fabric).

And for those who continue to scoff at spending thousands of dollars on a spelling coach, Deborah Sorin suggests that other parents easily spend that much on kids’ activities.

“You think of all the people who pay for travel soccer or whatever,” she says. “Jason’s not into that; he’s into this, and so paying a little bit for the privilege of getting real coaching made sense.”

What does this all mean for Shafer-Ray, a high school kid with aspirations to attend Stanford?

“I think I want to continue definitely for next year and probably through college,” he says. “That way I won’t have to get a part-time job during college, and I can just focus on what I want to do.

“I’ll take it as far as it takes me.”

Tiffany Wendeln-Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Words that she spelled incorrectly while writing this story include orthographic, cognoscente and marocain. And she would have mistakenly used “entomology” instead of “etymology” if it hadn’t been for an eagle-eyed editor.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017. 

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