Scripps National Spelling Bee changes the rules

First aired on Day 6 (25/05/13)

spelling.jpg"State the word, spell the word, state the word": these instructions at the Scripps National Spelling Bee have remained unchanged for the last 80 years...until this year. 

For the first time in history a speller's qualification in the semi-finals and championship finals will be based on a cumulative score that incorporates both spelling and vocabulary. The young spellers will have to define their word as well as spell it. 

Day 6 host Brent Bambury spoke with Emily Stagg, a past Bee competitor who was profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound. Emily wrote a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times calling for this change. Brent also talked to 11-year old Scripps competitor Vanya Shivishankar for her take.

Emily Stagg was surprised when she heard the spelling bee had taken her up on her suggestion to include definitions in the competition, but seven years after her op-ed article was published, she still stands by her comments. In her op-ed, Stagg wrote that the power and prestige of the Scripps institution is not being used in the best possible way. "There's a lot of valid criticism about the meaning of the Bee and how helpful it can be for kids," she said. "These are some of the best minds in middle schools across the country and why are they spending time memorizing the words if they don't know what they mean?" 

For Stagg, these changes are also about modernizing. "What with technology going the direction it has, knowing how to spell obscure words really has limited potential in the adult life, but knowing definitions and etymology...has meaning."

The emphasis on defining words shifts the studying process from simple memorization towards studying root words and the origins of language. To many of the young spellers this is a huge change; 11-year-old Vanya Shivishankar is both excited and nervous about this year's competition. When she first heard about the changes she was shocked but is now ready for the new challenge. "It does change the way I study for the competition because I study by understanding root words and when I understand those root words I understand the definition too. But now with the vocabulary I have to pay a little more attention."

What do you think? Is it too much to ask young spellers to define their words as well as spell them?

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