It's time once again for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and the big news going into this year's competition is the inclusion of vocabulary questions along with the traditional spelling questions. Even though the new multiple-choice questions testing contestants' knowledge of definitions will only appear in the off-stage computerized portions of the Bee, it's still a controversial shift in format.
The Bee began yesterday with a computer-based test, half spelling and half vocabulary, that formed the first of the preliminary rounds. (The vocabulary questions haven't been released yet, but you can check out sample questions here.) Today, the spellers will go on stage and spell words for two more rounds, and then semifinalists will be selected based on the scores thus far. But in yet another wrinkle to this year's proceedings, the semifinalists will again take a computerized test before the televised spelling begins on Thursday on ESPN.
The rules for assigning points are a bit convoluted, as the Associated Press reports: "The scoring system has the complexity usually associated with something like Olympic gymnastics: 24 words to spell and 24 words to define, although only 12 of each count toward the total score. There was also a pair of extra vocabulary words worth three points each." Despite these off-stage intricacies, the semifinals and finals broadcast on television will look the same as past years, with just the usual spelling questions.
Even if vocab questions haven't yet made it to the high-profile televised section of the event, the new question type seems to be here to stay. I interviewed Bee director Paige Kimble for my recent Boston Globe column on the format change, and she told me that Scripps had been putting plans in place for multiple-choice questions on definitions long before the seemingly sudden announcement last month:
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.
Kimble also told me that this coming academic year, schools and regional sponsors will have the option to include vocabulary questions, supplied by Scripps, as either part of a written test or orally in on-stage competition. If all goes well, we could see vocabulary questions in the televised portion of the nationals in coming years.
But would answering a multiple-choice question have the same kind of suspense as a speller nervously working his or her way through a word? It's just that kind of suspense that has inspired Bee-related movies, musicals, and novels. The jury is still out on whether vocabulary questions can generate the same level of excitement.
Still, that shouldn't stop Scripps from experimenting with vocabulary questions and gauging public reactions. Despite complaints about the lack of time to prepare for the new question type, this year's contestants have mostly expressed enthusiasm about being tested on definitions as well as spelling. And if they can not only spell "dghisa" but tell you it's a Maltese boat? That's twice as impressive.
For some intriguing historical background on the Bee, check out Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski's blog post here and his recent NPR interview here. And stay tuned for further updates on this year's Bee in this space, as I will be recapping the action over the next two days. Additionally, on Thursday, I'll be live-tweeting the televised semifinal rounds (ESPN2 2-5 p.m. EDT) and final rounds (ESPN 8-10 p.m. EDT) from the @Vocabularycom Twitter account. Follow along if you don't want to miss out on a single word!
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer