Spelling Bee Champs Will Now Also Need to Know What Words Mean

There is a change in the venerable Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will take place May 28 to 30 near Washington, D.C. Spelling is not enough. There's a vocabulary portion of the competition, now, too.

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There is a change in the venerable Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will take place May 28 to 30 in Oxon Hill, Maryland. No longer will a champion of spelling be able to get away with just, you know, spelling words. A multiple-choice vocabulary portion has been added to the competition, according to Scripps National Spelling Bee organizers. Gah! As a person who was kicked out of her school spelling bee disconcertingly early for spelling confident as confidant (I meant it the French way, I did!), this might have actually been beneficial—or entirely the opposite. But anyway, what about the hordes of children who've been toiling away day after day learning the letters that go into words who will now be tasked with meaning, too?

The AP reports that this is sort of the point: Scripps "Executive Director Paige Kimble said the changes help reinforce the competition's purpose—to encourage students to improve their spelling and broaden their knowledge of the language." Kimble thinks that championship-level spellers, who care about both things, will be thrilled to demonstrate not only their spelling knowledge, but also their vocab skills. "These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition," she said. And, of course, spellers have long been able to ask for definitions as they attempt to spell words, which I easily could have done with confidant, had I thought of that.

From the outside dictionary perspective, Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper told me, "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. 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."

Since 2002 Scripps has had a written or computer spelling test that, along with the spelling we see onstage, helped determine semifinalists. The vocabulary test will look different, though, with a computer test offering this sort of question: "Something described as refulgent is: a) tending to move toward one point, b) demanding immediate action, c) rising from an inferior state, d) giving out a bright light."

Bright light. Bright light. 

Vocabulary scores will be added to the onstage and computer-based spelling scores of participants to determine who gets to the semifinal and final rounds. This will help "regulate the number of spellers who advance to the finals," according to the A.P. Not to worry, you won't have to watch the vocabulary test-taking on TV (at least not in this first iteration of the spelling bee change; some form of it might be added down the road). You will see the final rounds in the same form they've always appeared, kids on a stage, spelling their hearts out. The big drawback I see to this change in the competition? We'll have absolutely no reason to think those kids—281 of whom have qualified for the big Bee and are now being given a month and change to commit all that vocabulary to memory, too—aren't way smarter than the rest of us. They'll know literally everything now. Now. At the present time or moment. Now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.