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Spelling as a Competitive Sport

This year for the first time ever competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee not only have to spell words correctly, but will also have to know what those words mean.  This seems to me to be a reasonable move, but I’m predicting that it will also be one that opens the door to controversy.

“In regards to vocabulary being added to the tests, it’s a big change but a natural one that has largely been embraced by our spellers and their parents,” reports Chris Kemper, the spokesperson for the spelling bee.The key word here is “largely.”

In my area (and I suspect we were not outliers), student winners from various schools came together for an area spelling bee to determine the local champ who would represent us at the state bee.  Parents were allowed to sit in the audience, and a local school administrator gave kids the words to spell.  A panel of Spelling bee three other school people determined if the word was spelled correctly, and one of those three had the onerous task of hitting the bell if there was an error.

Some years were without controversy, but many saw parents challenging the judges.  They hit the bell too soon, there was an alternate spelling, the word wasn’t clear, it wasn’t pronounced correctly, etc. etc.  School people who volunteered to help out at the bee were finding it to be a sometimes thankless job.

Now add vocabulary definitions to the mix.  The fans will come armed with the Miriam-Webster dictionary downloaded on their Ipads, ready to challenge the judges at the first bell.  The only thing that will slow parents down will be their inability to spell the word to look it up.

The fact that the top prize is no longer a certificate and parental bragging rights may add to parents’ willingness to challenge officials.  This year the winner of the competition will take home $30,000 in cash and an engraved trophy as well as a $2500 savings bond and $2000 worth of reference materials.  In keeping with the spirit of the competition, the championship round will be broadcast tonight on ESPN.  (Something about this reminds me of ESPN OCHO from Dodgeball.)

Scripps has been sponsoring the bee for over 70 years.  This year all 50 states are represented along with competitive spellers from other countries like Ghana, South Korea, and China.  Needless to say, parents will have plenty to complain about it the champion ends up to be a foreign student whose native language isn’t even English.  Interestingly enough, spellers say that math, not English, is their favorite subject.  And according to the competition’s official site, some of their favorite words are flibbertigibbet, conquistador, and gobbledygook. 

This week NPR profiled some of the former champs from decades ago.  Many have gone on to successful professional lives as doctors and lawyers; some have even hit it big on TV game shows.  But Karla Miller, who competed in 3 national bees in the eighties, says, “It’s a very intense experience.”  Will she watch it on TV?  “I can’t handle it,” she says.  "When I see it on the news, I see the clips and have to turn away because it stresses me out too much.”

We wish all the kids well, and hope it all runs smoothly.   In addition, I hope everyone remembers that while they’re great spellers, they’re just kids. 

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