The rules of the Scripps National Spelling Bee rarely make waves in the media. But earlier this month, they did exactly that, when it was announced that the national competition at the end of May will, for the first time, involve questions about not just the spellings of words, but also their definitions.
Vanya Shivashankar, a favorite this year (she came in 10th last year, and her sister Kavya won in 2009), told the Associated Press that top spellers on an e-mail group “were really, like, shocked, and they were surprised about the change that’s happened.” Her father, Mirle, also called the rule change “a shocker.”
Ever since the 2002 documentary “Spellbound” showed just how suspenseful competitive spelling could be, the once humble spelling bee has turned into a national spectator sport, with semifinals and finals broadcast like they’re the World Series. Those tuning in on ESPN may not notice much of a change, because the definition questions are being added off stage: Contestants will be whittled down through computerized tests including both spelling questions and multiple-choice vocabulary questions.
Still, the fact that the test will evaluate vocabulary knowledge does mark a significant shift in the bee’s 88-year history. The furor over this rule change exposes the uneasy tension between education and entertainment value at the heart of the bee. It also raises a question: Why do we think of a spelling contest as a telegenic sport but equate a definitions contest with dull, SAT-style standardized tests? Can’t vocabulary be glamorous too?
Critics of the move see a kind of purity in a contest that is just about memorizing sequences of letters. “The bee has always been a show of amazing memorization skills, not of enhanced vocabulary,” said Karin Klein, an editorial writer who covers education for the Los Angeles Times. “It has nothing to do with concepts, except the concept of kids working their brains off committing long lists of long words to memory.”
But the National Spelling Bee director, Paige Kimble, told me that the bee was never intended to be just about rote memorization. “Vocabulary in essence has already been part of the bee,” she said. She described the move as in keeping with the mission of the E. W. Scripps Co., the media conglomerate that operates the not-for-profit bee. “Our purpose is not only to help students improve their spelling but also to increase their vocabulary, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.” (A disclaimer: I’m the executive producer of Vocabulary.com, a website with no connection to Scripps but that aims to boost vocabulary knowledge through a similar multiple-choice game format.)
While the announcement by Scripps gives this year’s qualifiers just a scant few weeks to get ready, research on changing the rules began a year and a half ago, Kimble said. The organization intentionally announced the shift only after students qualified for the nationals. “By waiting until they’re all at the starting gate, they can be assured that they all have an equal opportunity to prepare for this,” she said.
And when she says “prepare,” she doesn’t mean verbatim memorization. Kimble gave an example of an arcane word: “dghaisa.” “I don’t want the participants being asked to recite a specific definition,” she said. “I just want them to be able to know if they see the word, what in general is it? Is a dghaisa a coin, a fabric, a boat, or a tree?” (It’s a boat, specifically one from Malta that resembles a gondola.)
By making definitions more central, Scripps is pushing back against perceptions that getting to the nationals involves nothing more than prodigious feats of word memorization. Truth be told, top spellers do need to appreciate meaning, to break down a word into classical roots or tease apart the spelling of similar-sounding words. But their mastery of spelling still comes off as little more than a stunt, like memorizing a deck of cards. That plays into the popular view of the bee as a nail-biting spectacle.
Adding the vocabulary questions off stage is something of a trial balloon, to see how spellers and their parents react. A look at the history of “vocabulary bees” suggests that Scripps is right to be cautious. I’ve found proposals for definition-based bees going back to 1875, when spelling bee fever gripped the country in what Mark Twain called a “spelling epidemic.” In the past decade or so, Reader’s Digest organized the National Word Power Challenge, the Game Show Network and Princeton Review ran the National Vocabulary Championship, and American Heritage dictionaries launched a “Define a Thon.”
But defining bees never caught on—none of these recent attempts lasted for more than a few years. As the Define a Thon’s emcee Steve Kleinedler acknowledged to Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, the letter-by-
letter suspense of the spelling bee “is a lot more exciting than watching someone taking a stab at a correct answer and sometimes making a lucky guess.”
As Zorn points out, though, the multiple-choice format works well on game shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” There should be ways to make vocabulary questions exciting to watch, and Scripps is taking the first steps to find out how. The payoff could be worth it: Beyond spelling bees and Scrabble, what’s to be gained from learning to spell abstruse words unmoored from their meanings? If Scripps can solve this showbiz challenge, bringing spelling and semantics together promises a fuller, more satisfying experience for contestants and viewers alike.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and
Vocabulary.com. He can be reached