National Spelling Bee will now include a vocab test

The National Spelling Bee is now requiring contestants to know what the words mean rather than just the letters for each one.

Evan Vucci
National Spelling Bee contestant Jae Canetti pauses before spelling the word 'punctilio.'

Jae Canetti said he screamed "No!" when he learned the National Spelling Bee would be introducing a vocabulary test. He started changing the way he prepared, studying definitions of words on the bus ride to school each day.

At least the extra work appeared to have paid off. When the 11-year-old from Fairfax, Va., took the test Tuesday morning, he felt he did just fine.

"I knew a lot of the words," Jae said. "It definitely was not, like, painstaking."

The 86th edition of the Scripps National Spelling Bee took on new meaning — or rather, lots of meanings — with organizers having decreed that the precocious youngsters need to prove they know more than just how to spell. The 281 competitors took a 45-minute computer test that probed their knowledge of both spelling and vocabulary, with the results to be combined with Wednesday's onstage round to determine who advances to the semifinals Thursday.

For the most part, the spellers had the same reaction to the vocabulary test: Good idea, but they wished they had known about it sooner.

"I think everybody wasn't expecting it, because it was something you weren't thinking they were going to put in," said 12-year-old Mary Elizabeth Horton from West Melbourne, Fla. "But it definitely changes everything."

Organizers announced the addition of vocabulary seven weeks ago, saying it reinforces the bee's mission to encourage students to broaden their knowledge of the English language. They waited until all of the qualifying bees had been completed so that the spellers would be on equal footing in their preparation.

"Before they announced the vocabulary, I paid attention to the definitions but I didn't focus too much," said 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali of New York. "But then after they announced it, I occasionally had my dad quiz me on vocabulary words, and I studied the definitions once in a while."

Arvind is one of the favorites, having finished third last year, and as he took the vocabulary test he was grateful for a trick everyone learns at school: the process of elimination.

"It was good that they gave multiple choice, so that you could eliminate incorrect answers," Arvind said. "I had to guess at one or two in vocabulary. ... I think it's not too bad of a change, actually. The vocabulary words, they're pretty easy to someone who studies well enough."

There will be another vocabulary test for those who make it to the semifinals, but Thursday night's finals will look the same as always — with spellers taking turns tackling incredibly difficult words under the bright lights of prime-time television until only a champion remains. The winner takes home more than $30,000 in cash and prizes.

The environment Tuesday morning was more low-key. Still, the tension and pressure were evident. The test took place inside a large hotel ballroom, where about 50 spellers at a time sat at a long, rectangular table staring at computer screens. They emerged one by one, greeted with pats on shoulders from parents and whispers of "How'd it go?" There was also a blind speller who took her test in Braille.

The scoring system has the complexity usually associated with something like Olympic gymnastics: 24 words to spell and 24 words to define, although only 12 of each count toward the total score. There was also a pair of extra vocabulary words worth three points each. The spellers were asked to choose among four possible definitions for each vocabulary word.

The lists of words on Tuesday's tests will be announced Wednesday, after the final scores are tabulated.

Organizers might tinker with the format in future years, but there's little doubt that the vocabulary test is here to stay.

"I really like the intended purpose, which is to emphasize vocabulary," said 1999 champion Nupur Lala, who was featured in the documentary "Spellbound."

"I think the level of competition has reached such an apex at this point that they need something else to differentiate spellers — and still keep the bee an educational exercise."

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