Spelling Bee Adds Vocabulary To Make Contest More Educational

Contestants in the National Spelling Bee will now be required to offer definitions for the words. Audie Cornish talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about the change.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Scripps National Spelling Bee announced a major change this week. For the first time, contestants will be tested on more than just spelling. They'll have to know some definitions, too. So can you define xanthosis? Or how about autochthonous - not to mention, spell them. Well, our regular sports commentator Stefan Fatsis believes that word games are a sport, and he joins us now. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So I'm not going ask you to spell or define either of those words, but...

FATSIS: I can do both of those, but go ahead.

CORNISH: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But tell us more about this change in the spelling bee because I understand that it's a little bit controversial.

FATSIS: Yeah. What the bee is doing is adding two rounds of vocabulary testing. The kids who reach the national bee - and it'll be about 280 this year - they already go through a preliminary round that you don't see on television, that includes a computer spelling test. And that's to help weed the field down. And now, that round is going to include multiple-choice vocabulary testing, too; and it'll account for half of the scores to determine which 50 kids move on to the semifinals.

And then once they get there, there's going to be a new, second round of spelling and vocabulary testing; to get the field down to a dozen or so finalists. And I say: Just what these kids need, another standardized test.

CORNISH: I know. Why do this? I mean, why add vocabulary?

FATSIS: Well, the bee's director said that the vocabulary testing will help deepen the bee's commitment to not just spelling but meanings, correct usage. In short, it'll make the bee more educational. And I think that's high-minded. It's hard to argue with, but I'm going to. There's no doubt that learning meanings is useful. But I'd say that for most of the top spellers, it's inherent in what they do - learning to spell tens of thousands of words partly by memorizing, but also by deducing clues in definitions, languages of origin, etymologies, parts of speech. I think the bee is changing the definition of what it's been since the very first one, in 1925. It's a spelling bee; the idea is to spell words correctly.

CORNISH: Yeah. But it's also an event for kids, and it's supposed to be about learning. So, I mean, what's the big deal to add some emphasis to what the words mean?

FATSIS: Well, at your local spelling bee, where the words are common, yes, emphasize vocabulary. Kids get lists of words to study. Let's give them the definitions, too. But the national bee is a circus act. The top spellers are being asked obscure words from an unabridged dictionary that's 2,600 pages long and contains more than 475,000 entries. The most recent winning words were stromuhr, cymotrichous and guetapens.

Now, let's be honest here. That's not about everyday meanings. For that reason, a lot of people think bees are absurd. I think the order of letters, on its own, is fascinating; and that the bee teaches all kinds of things beyond spelling, from discipline to drive to handling pressure, to respecting and appreciating the beauty of the English language.

CORNISH: Part of the pressure the spellers face is being on television. And some of the complaints about the changes, basically, are people asking, is this being influenced by the needs of entertainment and of television?

FATSIS: Yeah. ESPN is the bee's partner. A million people watched the finals in prime time last year. The complaint is about the semifinals round. In the past, it was just live spelling - the kids at the mic being asked a word, and getting dinged if they miss it, until there were dozen or so spellers left.

Now, though, to control the length of the semifinals to better fit them into a timeslot, they're going to include just two rounds of live spelling. So here is the unintended consequence: Because of the vocabulary testing, a speller can actually be eliminated without misspelling a single word. Just to be clear, though, the finals, the part that we all watch on TV, that's just your regular, at the microphone spelling.

CORNISH: Well, this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee is just six weeks away, and that's got to be causing some grief for spellers.

FATSIS: Yeah, I'm sure it is. Some of these kids have been studying six, eight, 10 hours a day to prepare for this event. And now, they are probably doing a bit more studying, to learn some of those meanings.

CORNISH: Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Stefan Fatsis. He's the author of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players," which was just published as an e-book. He joins us most Fridays, to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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