Vocabulary questions, lightning round tie-breaker added to National Spelling Bee

These big change in 96-year-old student competition aren’t being totally embraced by everyone. But they’re designed to make sure there are no more eight-way ties, just one champion.

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The eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee hold the trophy at the end of the competition in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

The eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee hold the trophy at the end of the competition in Oxon Hill, Maryland.


WASHINGTON— The Scripps National Spelling Bee is undergoing a major overhaul to ensure it can identify a single champion, adding vocabulary questions and a lightning-round tiebreaker to this year’s pandemic-altered competition.

The 96-year-old bee has in the past included vocabulary on written tests but never in the high-stakes oral competition rounds, in which a single mistake spells elimination.

The only previous tiebreaker to determine a single champion was a short-lived extra written test that never turned out to be needed.

The newly announced changes signal a new direction for the spelling bee under executive director J. Michael Durnil, who started in the job earlier this year.

But both new elements also mark a departure from what for many has been the core appeal of the bee: watching kids who have such mastery of Greek and Latin roots and language patterns that they can figure out how to spell the trickiest words even if they’ve never heard of them.

The 2020 bee was canceled because of the pandemic — the first time that’s happend since World War II.

This year’s event will be mostly virtual, and the in-person finals on July 8 have been moved from the event’s longtime home in the Washington area to an ESPN campus in Florida.

The spelling bee had co-champions from 2014 to 2016, and the 2019 bee ended in an eight-way tie after organizers ran out of words tough enough to challenge the top spellers, whose preparation with personal coaches and comprehensive study guides was no match for the vaunted Scripps word list.

Durnil didn’t directly criticize the way the bee previously has been run but said ending with one winner was a priority.

“I think the spellers don’t enter into our competition thinking that they’re going to have to share the ultimate distinction of the spelling champion with anybody else,” Durnil said. “From a competitive standpoint, we owe it to the spellers to identify the champion of the spelling bee.”

In the lightning round, spellers would have 90 seconds to spell as many words correctly as they can. The rapid-fire tiebreaker would be used only if the bee gets toward the end of its allotted time and can’t get to a single winner the traditional way — by eliminating spellers for getting a word wrong. The remaining spellers would get the same words in the lightning round and be isolated from one another.

Durnil said adding vocabulary brings more academic rigor to the bee, in keeping with its educational mission.

Siyona Mishra, a finalist in 2015 and 2017 who now coaches younger spellers — kids can’t compete after eighth grade — said there was a contradiction in the rationale given for the changes.

“Simultaneously saying that vocab questions on [the] live stage are being added to encourage understanding of words doesn’t really match up with their addition of a lightning round of spelling,” Mishra said. “Adding a lightning round will only emphasize to spellers that memorizing and immediately recognizing a word is what is more important than really learning the words.”

Memorizing definitions isn’t a core element of spellers’ training, said Zaila Avant-Garde, a 14-year-old from Hardey, Louisiana, who will be competing this year.

“I just kind of pick up the definition,” Zaila said. “It seeps into me from looking at them. It’s not like I specifically dedicate time to studying vocabulary. Will I now study it? I’m not really sure.”

She said she doesn’t mind the addition of vocabulary or the lightning round, saying those tings “will be really entertaining to watch or even to compete in.”

Scripps said live vocabulary rounds — in which spellers get multiple-choice questions about word definitions — are being used in some regional bees this year, but some spellers were caught off-guard by the change.

“I think it’s unfortunate that these changes were rolled out so late in the process,” said Scott Remer, a former speller and spelling coach who wrote a book about how to train for the bee, said. “Many students have been studying hard for nationals for many months without any certainty about the format of the bee.”

Amber Born, who competed in the bee from 2010 to 2013, said the lightning round “emphasizes speed over skill in a contest where that shouldn’t be the deciding factor.”

“I would prefer they just asked harder words,” Born said. “But it probably wouldn’t be as interesting on TV.”

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