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The pandemic gives a new direction to the National Spelling Bee

The event is undergoing a major overhaul this year, with newly-added vocabulary questions and a lightning-round tiebreaker

In this 2019-file photo, the Scripps National Spelling Bee trophy sits in front of competitors in Oxon Hill, Md. Photo: AP/Patrick Semansky, File
In this 2019-file photo, the Scripps National Spelling Bee trophy sits in front of competitors in Oxon Hill, Md. Photo: AP/Patrick Semansky, File (AP)

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, where one mistake eliminates a speller. The only previous tiebreaker to determine a single champion was a short-lived extra written test that never turned out to be needed.

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

Both new elements, however, also signal a departure from what for many observers is the core appeal of the bee: watching schoolchildren who have such mastery of roots and language patterns that they can figure out how to spell the trickiest words in the dictionary, even if they’ve never heard them before.

The 2020 bee was canceled because of the pandemic, the first time since World War II that the bee wasn’t on the calendar. This year’s event will be mostly virtual, and the in-person finals on July 8 have been moved from the bee’s longtime home in the Washington area to an ESPN campus in Florida.

The bee had co-champions from 2014-16, and the 2019 bee ended in an eight-way tie after organisers ran out of words difficult 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 did not directly criticise the previous bee 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 told The Associated Press. “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 as they can correctly. The rapid-fire tiebreaker would only be used if the bee gets toward the end of its allotted time and can't get to a single winner in 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.

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

Siyona Mishra, a finalist in the bee in 2015 and 2017 who now coaches younger spellers — kids can't compete after eighth grade — said there was a contradiction in Scripps' justification 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 wrote in an email. “Adding a lightning round will only emphasise to spellers that memorising and immediately recognising a word is what is more important than really learning the words.”

Memorising definitions is not a core element of spellers' training, said Zaila Avant-Garde, a 14-year-old from Hardey, Louisiana, who will be competing in this year's bee.

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

Zaila stressed that she didn't mind the addition of vocabulary or the lightning round, which she said “will be really entertaining to watch or even to compete in.”

Scripps said live vocabulary rounds — in which spellers are given 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,” Scott Remer, a former speller and spelling coach who wrote a book about how to train for the bee, said in an email. “Many students (including my tutees) 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 2010-13, 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 added, “but it probably wouldn’t be as interesting on TV.”

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