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Pop quiz: Spelling Bee adds vocabulary test to trim spellers

WASHINGTON – 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.

Executive Director Paige Kimble said the changes help 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. “These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition.”

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 and getting the answer in order 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 on Tuesday 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 spellers will continue to take part in the traditional on-stage spelling rounds with the familiar doomsday bell, but their scores will be combined with the vocabulary tests to help determine the semifinalists and the finalists. The vocabulary tests will be done in private rooms and will not be part of the television broadcasts.

The final rounds, broadcast once again in prime time, will not include a vocabulary test and will look the same as always – with the competitors taking turns attempting to spell incredibly difficult words until all but the champion is eliminated.

This year’s bee takes place May 28-30 near Washington, D.C.

The introduction of vocabulary also allows bee organizers to better regulate the number of spellers who advance to the finals, an issue that’s been problematic in the past because of the need to fit the bee into its allotted broadcast slot. Parents and spellers were upset in 2010 when officials abruptly halted the semifinals in the middle of a round because spellers were being eliminated too quickly.

Now the bee will use a points formula to determine the finalists, combining vocabulary and spelling scores. The finals will likely have nine to 12 spellers.

“Previously we just knew that we were going to spell until we had a reasonable number of children to bring into the finals,” Kimble said. “Now we have some definition around how that happens.”

Kimble said she’s open to the idea of having the vocabulary test take place onstage in future bees, but she wants to try the computer format first and see how it works. The change will no doubt create a sudden change in study habits for some of the 281 spellers who have qualified for this year’s bee: They all qualified in regional bees that focused only on spelling.

Kimble said the national bee will supply materials and suggestions to help local bees introduce a vocabulary test next year.

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