Sam Fetters didn’t say his first word, he spelled it. At two years old, he was spelling before he was talking.

This May, the 12-and-a-half-year-old West Tisbury seventh grader will compete in his second Scripps National Spelling Bee in a row. Sam beat out five other spellers from the Island elementary schools to win the district spelling bee last Friday. His winning word was “pinafore.”

The other contestants were fourth grader Volkert Kleeman (charter school), fifth grader Kestutis Biskis (Chilmark school), eighth grader Avery Simmons (Edgartown school), sixth grader Hannah Murphy (Oak Bluffs school) and sixth grader Mateo Darack (Tisbury school).

Sitting in his living room, after play practice this week, Sam tried to remember the first word he spelled.

Sam, his twin brother John and mom, Kim Leaird. — Alison L. Mead

“I can’t remember that far back,” he admitted. His mom, Kim Leaird, recalled Sam calling from his crib, demanding, “U-P.”

“He would spell words in the grocery store from the cart, he would look up and say, ham, h-a-m,” she said. “He was pretty stuck in spelling.”

With a predisposition for spelling that started in the crib, it’s not much of a surprise that Sam has excelled in school bees. His first was in fourth grade. He won the class wide bee, but was later eliminated on the word “ailment” in the school-wide bee.

“When I got the word ailment wrong, I’ve remembered it ever since, stone cold,” he said.

In fifth grade, he was runner-up in his class bee. Sixth grade he hit his stride, winning the West Tisbury School bee and then the Island-wide bee, which sent him to his first national bee held in Washington D.C.

Sam made it through three rounds last year, one written test and two oral spelling rounds. In fact, he never misspelled a word in the oral spelling rounds, the type most are familiar with and get televised. He was eliminated due to a low test score, which focuses on etymology. Of the about 250 kids in the bee, only 50 can make it to the fourth round.

Last year his understanding of etymology wasn’t as strong as his spelling skills, something he thinks worked against him in the written portion of the bee. This year he’s been focusing on learning roots.

“You can know every single root but you can’t know every single word,” he said.

Latin roots come in handy. — Alison L. Mead

This year’s journey to the national bee has already been a roller coaster of emotions, he said.

It started with the class bee. Facing off against his classmate Ingrid Moore, the two went 40 rounds, exhausting the word list twice. At first, neither speller was getting a word wrong. Then a new list was introduced, and neither speller could get a word right. Finally, a third list was brought out and Sam won. The district bee, by comparison, went much more quickly.

After spelling bees, Sam and his family like to celebrate with treats and activities.

“Something I like to do lately is drink root beer,” Sam said.

When he’s not spelling, Sam likes to read, draw, make maps, work with clay and run. But when winter rounds the corner, he turns his attention to words. He practices at school with his fifth grade English teacher, Peter Forrester.

“At first it was a bunch of students and me studying for the bee,” he said. “By sixth grade, it was just me.”

At home, he practices with his mom. He has a few tricks that he uses to remember words. Sometimes, he associates a word with an image, “tchotchke” goes with an accordion. Elephants and the moon are also good images for words. At the district bee, spellers can use a whiteboard to write down the word before they spell, but Sam rarely used it.

“I like to spell from my head, but the white board is a great resource to have as well,” he said.

At the national bee, there is no whiteboard. Though some contestants at the national bee come from a family of spellers, Sam is the only one in his family to have shown a knack for spelling, though his twin brother John has been trying his hand at it lately. The bee will be a family affair, since he has relatives living near the D.C. area that will come to cheer him on. The Island spelling bee and trip to Washington DC is sponsored each year by the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

Sam’s goal for this year’s bee is to get further in the competition than last year. Even as a natural-born speller, he has big competition ahead. After last year’s elimination, Sam stuck around to watch the rest of the bee. When the head pronouncer began reading the final round words, he realized something.

“I did not know any of them...I didn’t understand a single word they were saying,” he admitted.