National spelling bee adds vocabulary tests

Apr 11, 2013 by

What does it all mean?

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.”

Giabao Tonthat of Escondido, winner of this year’s U-T San Diego Countywide Spelling Bee, said he will have to study more because of the new requirement.

“Previously, I would just take a glimpse at the definition. I paid more attention to spelling,” he said Tuesday. “Now, I’ll pay more attention to the definition.”

Giabao, 13, is a student at Heritage K-8 Charter School in Escondido. He won the spelling bee in March by correctly spelling “bonspiel.” Before spelling the word, he had asked for its definition (a tournament between curling clubs).

“When I study words, I usually study the definitions, too,” he said. “But I forget the definitions after a while.”

While it will cause him to prepare more for the national competition, Giabao said he understands why the change was made.

“I read an article that said one of the main purposes of the spelling bee is to improve the speller’s understanding of the English language,” he said. “The definitions are kind of important.”

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,” said Vanya Shivashankar, of Olathe, Kan. “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:

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