WASHINGTON — Ever wonder if those spelling bee kids know the meanings of some of those big words? Now they'll have to prove that they do.
Organizers of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Tuesday announced a major change to the format, adding multiple-choice vocabulary tests to the annual competition that crowns the English language's spelling champ.
The changes make it easier to nail down the nine to 12 competitors who make it to the final round, which will look the same as it has for years to primetime TV viewers, with spellers taking turns until only the champion has avoided the familiar doomsday bell. The changes do add a wrinkle to the televised semifinals, however, as even the best on-stage spellers could find themselves eliminated from the finals if they perform poorly on the multiple-choice test.
Executive Director Paige Kimble said the changes were driven by the desire to reinforce the competition's purpose — to encourage students to improve their spelling and broaden their knowledge of the language.
"What we know with the championship-level spellers is that they think of their achievement in terms of spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin," Kimble said. "These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition."
Vocabulary has been a regular part of the bee during its 87-year history, but it's always been the spellers asking for the definition to help them spell the word.
Now the tables will be turned, with the spellers taking a computer test that looks like something from the SAT. A sample question provided by the Spelling Bee reads as follows:
"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."
The correct answer is d.
The vocabulary tests will be done in private rooms and will not be part of the television broadcasts.
While the finals format remains unchanged, the televised semifinals will have a different payoff. Spellers will continue to be eliminated if they misspell on stage, but there will be only two semifinal rounds. The results of those rounds will be combined with the computerized spelling and vocabulary tests to select the finalists.
The issue of determining the number of finalists has been problematic in the past because of the need to fit the bee into its allotted broadcast slot. Parents and spellers were upset in 2010 when officials abruptly halted the semifinals in the middle of a round because spellers were being eliminated too quickly.
The bee, working with its television partners, usually prefers to have nine to 12 spellers in the finals. That will be easier to accomplish now because the bee can take the spellers with the most points, with wiggle room to account for ties.
"Previously, we just knew that we were going to spell until we had a reasonable number of children to bring into the finals," Kimble said. "Now we have some definition around how that happens."
Kimble said she's open to the idea of having the vocabulary test take place onstage in future bees, but she wants to try the computer format first and see how it works. The change will no doubt create a sudden change in study habits for some of the 281 spellers who have qualified for this year's bee: They all qualified in regional bees that focused only on spelling.
"I think from now on there'll be more focus on the meaning" for aspiring bee competitors, said Srinivas Mahankali, whose son, Arvind, will be one of the favorites this year after finishing third the past two years. "Although from the beginning they've been emphasizing meaning. But I think they'll be more emphasis now."
The bee will explain all of the changes to the spellers during a conference call Wednesday. This year's bee takes place May 28-30 near Washington, giving competitors only a matter of weeks to prepare.
"It's a short time, that's for sure," Mahankali said. "But the thing is everyone knows about it at the same time, so I think it's fair to everyone."
Kimble said the national bee waited until all the regional bees were completed to make the announcement so that everyone would start on equal footing. She said the national bee will supply materials and suggestions to help local bees introduce a vocabulary test next year.