Scripps National Spelling Bee Adds Vocabulary, Definitions

The National Spelling Bee is adding another rule that is sending its participants into a tizzy, ABC News reports. According to the announcement from Scripps National Spelling Bee, participants will now have to know the meaning of each word in addition to how to spell it in order to be considered for the national finals held in Washington D.C. every year.

The vocabulary knowledge will play a part in the multiple-choice exams that will be administered for the first time this year in order to make it easier for Scripps to narrow the pool down to the final 12.

The changes will make it easier to nail down the nine to 12 competitors who make it to the final round, which will look the same as it has for years to prime-time TV viewers, with spellers taking turns until only the champion has avoided the familiar doomsday bell. The changes do add a wrinkle to the televised semifinals, however, as even the best onstage spellers could find themselves eliminated from the finals if they perform poorly on the multiple-choice test.

The initial reaction from potential competitors has been shock. Vanya Shivashankar, who came in 10th last year and is one of the favorites to win this year, said that based on the replies on her email list many former participants are surprised by the changes and many will now have to adjust the approach they use to prepare for preliminary rounds.

According to Executive Director Paige Kimble, that is the whole point. She said that rote memorization has moved the competition too far from its goals of not only improving spelling but also expanding the students’ vocabulary and broadening their knowledge of the language.

“What we know with the championship-level spellers is that they think of their achievement in terms of spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin,” Kimble said.

Vocabulary has been a regular part of the bee during its 87-year history, but it’s always been the spellers asking for the definition to help them spell the word.

The tests will be administered in private and will not be televised, but they will count for half the final score which will determine who will move on to the semi-finals and the finals. Although many believe that this is a good change in the long run, there are complaints that it was announced too close to the latest competition. With the finals scheduled for May 28th, participants have less than 2 months to radically alter the way they’re preparing.