Scripps reforms National Spelling Bee rules, reducing wild cards

The 2020 bee will have fewer participants after this year's competition ended in an unprecedented eight-person tie. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Wild-card entrant Karthik Nemmani wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Maryland, May 31, 2018. Karthik lost his highly competitive regional bee, but made it to Nationals through the "RSVBee" program, which is being reworked this year.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee will have fewer participants next year. Whether it will have fewer champions remains to be seen.

Six months after the bee ended in an unprecedented eight-way tie because organizers ran out of words that were difficult enough to trip up the best spellers, Scripps on Tuesday announced the first in a series of reforms to the competition. While bee organizers aren’t saying how they’ll come up with a more challenging word list, the bee is reducing the number of wild-card entrants, which ought to streamline an event that was becoming unwieldy.

The bee will have roughly 140 wild-card entrants, down from nearly 300 this year. That means the competition would top out at about 400 spellers. This year, there were 562 kids in the bee, which is open to students through the eighth grade.

And unlike in previous years, wild cards will be available only to seventh- and eighth-graders. There were dozens of first-timers and younger spellers among this year’s wild cards, and current and former spellers said they were concerned the program had strayed from its intended purpose and was letting in nearly anyone able to pay the $1,500 entry fee, plus travel, lodging, and expenses. Spellers who qualify via the traditional route, by winning a regional bee, have their trip to nationals paid for by sponsors.

There were 17 wild cards age 9 or younger this year, and none survived to join the 50 spellers who made the finals. The preliminary rounds featured wild-card spellers who were clearly overwhelmed by such words as "tendon," ''vestibule," ''allocation," and “gyro.”

Fourteen-year-old Simone Kaplan of Davie, Florida, who just missed being part of the octet of champions in this year’s bee, said she noticed the struggles of some younger wild-card spellers.

“The change gives the students in sixth grade and below who don’t win their district bees more chances to hone their skills for next year,” said the eighth-grader, who is hoping to return for her fourth bee. “I think that making the bee smaller is also going to make it more competitive, so yes, I think it is a good thing.”

Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director, told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement that older kids ought to be the focus of the wild-card program because they are running out of chances to make the bee. She said Scripps will take into account applicants' performances in past bees and the difficulty of their regions.

Scripps also announced a financial aid package for spellers who apply through the wild-card program, known as “RSVBee.” The bee will cover the entry fees and expenses of up to 18 wild-card spellers who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, a common measure of poverty.

“We have always been sensitive to the financial need aspect of RSVBee,” Ms. Kimble said. “We look forward to helping spellers and their families who are in need make it to the national stage.”

The wild-card program began with the 2018 bee in a bid to give opportunities to kids who live in highly competitive regions or in areas without sponsored bees, and it paid off immediately when Karthik Nemmani, a wild card from the Dallas area, won the bee. Dallas and Houston are home to some of the strongest fields of spellers at the regional level, and Karthik had lost his county bee to the girl he ended up defeating for the national title.

None of this year’s eight champions was a wild card.

The bee did not announce any further changes to the structure or rules of the competition. The rules are generally shared with the spellers about a month before the bee, which is held the last week in May at a convention center outside Washington and televised by ESPN. Spellers will be eager to know whether Scripps decides to bring back a written tiebreaker test, which was added to the competition after three consecutive ties. The test was unpopular and didn’t prove necessary in 2017 or 2018, so Scripps got rid of it. Then it ended up with eight champs.

As for the word list, its creation is a yearlong process, the details of which Scripps has always kept secret. Ms. Kimble would only say that the process is on schedule. But she maintains that the eight-way tie did not reflect poorly on the bee.

“We will present a competition that is challenging and that also honors the achievement of these spellers who have worked so very hard to master the ins and outs of the English language,” Ms. Kimble said. “Our focus more than anything else is on celebrating that achievement.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Scripps reforms National Spelling Bee rules, reducing wild cards
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today