April 9, 2013

Spelling Bee kids will have to know definitions too

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — What does it all mean?

click image to enlarge

In this May 29, 2012 file photo, contestants in the National Spelling Bee take the written exam on computers in Oxon Hill, Md., before the oral competition began. 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. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

That's the question facing spelling whizzes across the country, who learned Tuesday that they will have to know the definitions of some of the those tough words they've been memorizing in the dictionary. For the first time, multiple-choice vocabulary tests will be added to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

"Changes are not a surprise, but these changes are massive," said Mirle Shivashankar, whose daughter, 11-year-old Vanya, is among the favorites after finishing tied for 10th last year. "It came as a shocker. ... We're going to have to change the way we prepare a little bit."

The changes will 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 prime-time 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 onstage spellers could find themselves eliminated from the finals if they perform poorly on the multiple-choice test.

"I'm on an email group and we talk about spelling, and a lot of the returning spellers were really, like, shocked, and they were surprised about the change that's happened," Vanya Shivashankar said. "But it's going to be really cool and fun to see how the bee will be because it will be spelling and vocabulary."

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.

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 take place in private rooms and will not be part of the television broadcasts, but they will count for 50 percent of the point totals that determine the semifinalists and finalists.

"In the long run I think it's a change for the better because it tests spellers' all-around knowledge of the word as opposed to just the spelling of the word," said 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali, also one of the favorites after finishing third the past two years.

But what about right now? Arvind and the rest of the 281 spellers in this year's bee now have less than two months to change their study habits ahead of the May 28-30 competition near Washington.

"I'm just going to review all the words for their meanings one more time, if I have enough time," Arvind said. "But it's going to be a little difficult to adjust to this right now."

Shivashankar, who coached daughter Kavya to the 2009 title and now coaches Vanya, said he thinks there's a good purpose behind the changes, but he wishes they had been announced at the start of the school year.

(Continued on page 2)

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