Know what 'campestral' means? National Spelling Bee introduces a vocab test.

For the first time in its 86-year history, the National Spelling Bee, to begin May 28, is taking account not only of whether participants can spell the words, but also whether they know what they mean.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego concentrates while spelling 'guetapens' in the last round to win the National Spelling Bee last year. Scripps announced Tuesday that the spelling bee will include a vocabulary component this year.

Not only will National Spelling Bee participants stand on stage to spell words like “defibrillation” and “indocile,” but this year they will also have to know what those words mean.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee, for the first time in its 86-year history, is adding a vocabulary component to the national competition, which is set for May 28-30 in Oxon Hill, Md. That leaves the 281 spellers with 49 days to memorize spellings and definitions.

This is a significant but natural change for the National Spelling Bee, said director Paige Kimball.

“It represents a deepening of the Bee’s commitment to its purpose: to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives,” she said in a statement.

This year, participants will qualify for the semifinals and finals based on a cumulative score of on-stage spelling, computer-based spelling questions (which Scripps added in 2002), and computer-based vocabulary questions. The vocabulary evaluation counts for 50 percent of the score.

Both the computerized spelling and vocabulary tests will not be televised, though ESPN will broadcast the live onstage spelling portions.

Some of the sample vocabulary questions may look something like this:

What does it mean to appertain? 

a) assume the character or appearance of

b) belong either as something appropriate or as an attribute

c) distress severely so as to cause continued suffering

d) be guilty of

Or, where would a campestral scene take place?

a) in the country

b) in a city

c) at the beach

d) in a warehouse

(The answers are “b” and “a,” respectively.)

“Spelling and vocabulary are, in essence, two sides of the same coin,” Ms. Kimble said. “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.”

Scripps waited until the regional competitions were over before announcing the change in program, providing equal footing for all the participants, she said.

Participants learned about the change during a conference call on Wednesday, so they will definitely be changing their studying strategy.

“It’s a short time, that’s for sure,” Srinivas Mahankali, whose son, Arvind Mahankali, will be participating for the third time, told the Associated Press. “But the thing is everyone knows about it at the same time, so I think it’s fair to everyone.”

Mr. Mahankali said the aspiring spellers will now know there is more of a focus on meaning. “Although from the beginning they’ve been emphasizing meaning. But I think [there will] be more emphasis now,” he added.

The National Spelling Bee draws students from eight countries and Department of Defense Schools in Europe and US territories including American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. The competition is open to students younger than 16 years old who have not passed eighth grade.

Snigdha Nandipati, an eighth-grader from San Diego, won last year with the word “guetapens,” which is a word for ambush or trap. In 2011, the final word was “cymotrichous,” which is defined as “having the hair wavy.”

Students will still be able to ask for definitions during the onstage spelling section, but future bees may eventually include onstage vocabulary tests, Kimble told the Associated Press.

"These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition,” she said.

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