The nation’s best young spellers will not only have to spell long words, but they will be required to demonstrate they know the meanings of those words most of us have never seen, much less correctly spelled.
Organizers of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have announced a major change to the format, adding multiple-choice vocabulary tests to the annual competition that crowns the English language’s spelling champ.
The changes 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 on-stage spellers could find themselves eliminated from the finals if they perform poorly on the multiple-choice test.
Executive Director Paige Kimble said the changes were driven by the desire to reinforce the competition’s purpose — to encourage students to improve their spelling and broaden 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. “These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition.”
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. Now the tables will be turned, with the spellers taking a computer test that looks like something from the SAT.
A sample question provided by the Spelling Bee reads as follows: “Something described as refulgent is: a) tending to move toward one point, b) demanding immediate action, c) rising from an inferior state, d) giving out a bright light."
In case you did not know — and we weren’t sure — the correct answer is d.
The vocabulary tests will be done in private rooms and will not be part of the television broadcasts. That only makes sense. Viewing children taking tests would be downright boring.
While the finals format remains unchanged, the televised semifinals will have a different payoff. Spellers will continue to be eliminated if they misspell on stage, but there will be only two semifinal rounds. The results of those rounds will be combined with the computerized spelling and vocabulary tests to select the finalists.
The change will no doubt create a sudden change in study habits for some of the 281 spellers who have qualified for this year’s bee: They all qualified in regional bees that focused only on spelling. This year’s bee takes place May 28 through 30 near Washington, giving competitors only a matter of weeks to prepare.
As people who daily work with words, we like the change because it strengthens the word power of young people by not only requiring them to correctly spell a difficult word, but to define it. After all, what’s the value in knowing how to spell a word if you don’t know what is means or how to use it in a sentence? Knowing the meaning can be the difference between rote memory and true knowledge.