National Spelling Bee adds vocab test: Do the kids like it?

The 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee now requires young competitors to know how to use words, such as flibbertigibbet – a favorite word of student participants – not just how to spell them.

Cliff Owen/AP
Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., talks about her experience during the first round of the contest in Oxon Hill, Md., on Tuesday. Vanya's Shivashankar's older sister, Kavya, won the Bee in 2009.

There’s a $30,000 cash prize at stake and decades of bragging rights for the winner of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee, which kicks off Tuesday with the first vocabulary test in the history of the competition.

Instead of just getting the vowels and consonants right, 281 spellers from all 50 states and eight countries, gathered outside Washington, must also know the meaning of words like flibbertigibbet, weissnichtwo, and gobbledegook.

“When I first heard about it, I was thinking, ‘It’s going to be a lot harder now,’ ” competitor Alicia Gonzales from Winchester, Va., told The Washington Times. “Instead of just spelling the word, we have to know what it means.”

The computer-based vocabulary test counts for half of the speller’s overall score, with onstage tests, beginning Wednesday, to determine the other half of the score. Students are given 24 spelling words and 24 vocabulary words during Tuesday's preliminary round. 

The E.W. Scripps Company, which has sponsored the bee for 70 years, introduced the new vocabulary test last month. Bee director Paige Kimble told CNN the announcement was made after the regional spelling bees concluded.

“The timing of our announcement ... is absolutely fair," she said. "April is the first opportunity to engage all of the participants who have qualified for the national finals."

The new vocabulary component aims to help students "learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives," she said, in an April 9 announcement of the rule change.

Richard Morga, a Bee participant from Wood Dale, Ill., told the Chicago Tribune that he thinks the vocabulary test evens the playing field: “The repeat (competitors) don’t really matter anymore,” he said.

Linda Tarrant, president of Hexco Academic, a company in Hunt, Texas, that provides personal coaching for elite spellers, told The Washington Times that the vocabulary change “threw us all out of kilter.”

“I think they did it for all the right reasons, but I think it’s a terrible mistake to do it six weeks before the spelling bee,” Ms. Tarrant said. “You have kids who have been studying hard, two-to-four hours a day, since last year’s national bee. They have learned several thousand words, but have they learned the meaning of them all? My guess is no.”

Hexco’s website lists the cost of eight sessions of one-on-one coaching at $1,900 and 16 sessions at $3,000.

The Bee also added other measures this year. Spellers will be eliminated after the first time they misspell a word in Round 2, instead of getting a chance at a second word.

“Every year, we’re trying to improve the competition – improve the fairness and the competitiveness,” said bee spokesman Chris Kemper.

Only 50 contestants will survive the preliminary rounds to advance to the semifinals. Participants who correctly spell their words during the onstage portion aren’t guaranteed to advance to the next round, if their written spelling and vocabulary scores aren’t high enough, writes USA Today.

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 last month.

A portion of Wednesday’s semifinals and the championship round Thursday night will be broadcast by ESPN.

This year Tara Singh of Louisville, Ky., is the youngest speller at age 8. Participants range from 8 to 14 years, with 89 percent between the ages of 12 and 14. The competition is open to students younger than 16 who have not yet passed eighth grade.

Two contestants, Vanya Shivashankar and Ashwin Veeramani, have siblings who previously won the spelling bee. The Economic Times notes that the past five bee winners were Indian-Americans and that nearly 50 Indian-Americans are competing this year, including Ms. Singh, the youngest competitor.

The Scripps Howard News Service has developed an interactive map to track which competitors are eliminated or "still spelling," and to show home states, gender, and age. Among this year’s group, 52 percent are girls and 48 percent boys.

According to ABCNews, Harry Potter was the most popular response to the bee’s survey of participants' favorite books, and most competitors want to grow up to be a doctor. Math is most frequently cited as a favorite subject.

Ms. Kimble, the bee director, appears confident the new vocabulary section will be a success. She tweeted this morning: “Was there ever any doubt? With >75 Prelims Test scores in, the spellers are performing a bit better on vocab than spelling.”

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