As if the Scripps National Spelling Bee wasn't stressful enough already, spellers will now have to know what words mean in the Bee's first vocabulary evaluation. A combination of onstage spelling, computer-based spelling questions, and computer-based vocabulary questions will determine which spellers make it to the semifinals and championship finals. While computer-based spelling already contributed to a speller's score, the vocabulary test is a new addition that will surely add some spice to the competition.
"Spelling and vocabulary are, in essence, two sides of the same coin," said Paige Kimble, director of the Bee. "As a child studies the spelling of a word and its etymology, he will discover its meaning. As a child learns the meaning of a word, it becomes easier to spell. And all of this enhances the child's knowledge of the English language."
In essence, this addition is just reinforcing something the children who partake in the Bee should already know. Spellers often ask the Bee's official pronouncer about a word's language(s) of origin, alternate pronunciation(s), and if certain root words are contained in the word, demonstrating their knowledge of languages and the spelling of certain root words that can help them spell the word they are given. Some students even study multiple languages in addition to the dictionary from which the words will be drawn.
"I actually think that this is a great shift; it moves the emphasis from spelling to language, and a good grasp of language is going to be more beneficial in the long run," said Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper. "Honestly, it's probably not going to be much of a stretch for most students to learn the meanings of the words in the word list, since most of them study the roots and the etymologies anyway."
Added Kimble, "These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition."
The new format also makes the process of narrowing the field down to the 9-12 competitors who will make the finals much easier. Before, the officials would allow people to spell until they felt they had reached an acceptable number of finalists. Now, they can use the quantitative scores from both computer-based tests and the onstage spelling to determine the nine or 10 people they want, with a few spaces open to account for ties.
In order to give this May's competitors equal footing, Scripps waited until all of the regional bees — whose winners advance to the National Bee — had been completed. This way, they all learned about the vocabulary section simultaneously and will receive the new study materials on the same date.
Due to the addition of the vocabulary section, another significant rule change in this year's Bee is that competitors who misspell a word in preliminary rounds are immediately eliminated. Before, spellers who misspelled a word in the first 3 rounds could fall back on their computer-based scores to keep them in the competition.
Overall, Kimble believes these change will work to enhance the competition and show the world — who can, as always, watch the last two onstage rounds on ESPN — that all of the competitors show a passion for learning the intricacies of language.
"The Scripps National Spelling Bee is not only a competition but also a celebration of the English language," she said. "We will continue to foster, leverage and grow our opportunity to inspire children to improve their spelling and increase their vocabularies through the Scripps National Spelling Bee."