Andrew Zhou, 13, of Honolulu, twists his feet during the first round of the Scripps 2007 Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
(Lawrence Jackson/Associated Press)
The Scripps National Spelling Bee: One letter at a time
May 31, 2007
Just how is it that some 11-year-olds can spell words that most adults have never heard of? Words like "tonitruous," "suffrutescent," or "querulential"?
No help from spell check, here. The program used to write this story didn't recognize any of them – its wavy red underlines suggesting the writer try again.
The fact that some youngsters can spell their way out of words that would seem to be the sole domain of Scrabble champions has long amazed those of us who must rely on such mnemonic aides as "i before e, except after...uh...how does that go again?"
One of 20 Canadian spellers, Zach Lucier (no. 43) of Windsor, Ont., rests his eyes during the first round of the Scripps 2007 Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
(Lawrence Jackson/Associated Press)
In the rarefied air of the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals, spell check programs and feeble memory rhymes can't rescue anyone. To make it to spelling's big league, contestants must have powers mere mortal spellers can only imagine.
The world's best-known spelling contest was begun by a newspaper in Louisville, Ky., in 1925. There were nine contestants that first year. In 1941, the Scripps newspaper chain assumed sponsorship. Over the years, it has grown to a nationally televised contest with big prizes, intense competition and, beginning in 2005, Canadian contestants.
Its goal: "to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives," says the official website.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is open to students under the age of 16 and in Grade 8 or under. There is no minimum age. In 2006, two nine-year-olds were among the 274 invited to Washington for the finals.
Contestants are sponsored, usually by a newspaper in their home city. The Scripps-Howard chain has only 19 papers, so most participating papers are not affiliated with Scripps. Each sponsoring paper organizes a spelling bee in its community with the co-operation of local school boards. The winner from each contest gets to go to Washington for the finals.
The National Spelling Bee was an all-American affair when it began in 1925. Since 1970, the bee has allowed foreign contestants although Canada's first appearance didn't come until 2005. In 2007, 20 Canadians were entered, up from 14 in 2006.
How is the winner chosen?
The finals are conducted over two days and feature a series of gruelling rounds that eventually turn into sudden death elimination contests.
- Gladiolus ('25)
- Fracas ('30)
- Knack ('32)
- Therapy ('41)
- Chiaroscurist ('98)
- Logorrhea ('99)
- Succedaneum ('01)
- Autochthonous ('04)
- Appoggiatura ('05)
Round One is the only one that is written. Contestants have to spell 25 words and are given points depending on how many they get right. Round Two and subsequent rounds are oral.
In Round Two, the words are chosen from the bee's official study guide, called the Paideia, as well as the 250 words that appear in two sections of the Sponsor Bee Guides. While these words are often ridiculously difficult, the contestants consider this round to be the easiest because they can study the words and memorize their spellings.
Jaclyn Chang of Calgary rests prior to spelling her word during the 2006 National Spelling Bee in Washington. (Lawrence Jackson/Associated Press)
In Round Three and subsequent rounds, the words are chosen from among the 470,000 or so in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. (Note to Canadian contestants: Use American spellings!)
If a contestant makes a mistake at this point, there's no second chance. They are escorted off the stage to be comforted by their parents. The rounds continue until there's only one left standing.
How are the words chosen?
It may seem like the judges have simply opened their dictionaries and looked for the longest, most obscure words to confound the spellers. But the process to arrive at a final word list actually begins almost a year before the annual competition.
A three-person "word panel" begins by composing rough word lists. A series of meetings then follows. Words that are not in the official dictionary are cut, as are words that are judged to be too difficult or too easy, or those that have too many letters or syllables. Eventually, the panel comes up with a rated list of about 950 words that will be used in the final competition.
To help contestants study, the National Spelling Bee provides lists of the 23,000-odd words that have been used in previous bees, along with definitions, language of origin, and an example of their use in a sentence. This study aid is 794 pages long. One starts to realize that preparing for a spelling bee involves a great deal of work.
What questions are contestants allowed to ask?
TOP CANADIAN IN 2006
Finola Hackett, 14, of Tofield, Alta., made it all the way to the final round and finished second, winning $12,000 US. She was stumped by the word weltschmerz, which means a feeling of pessimism. She had spelled it as veltschmerz.
VIDEO: Suhanna Marchand interviews Finola Hackett. (Runs 5:00)
Spellers are allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions of the person asking them to spell a certain word. "How is the word spelled?" or "Is there a 'c' in that word?" are, not surprisingly, questions that are not allowed.
What is allowed? Contestants can ask the questioner to say the word again, use it in a sentence, give a definition, or provide the word's language of origin (French? Latin? Klingon?).
Once a contestant starts to spell a word, they can go back and start from the beginning and retrace their spelling. But they cannot change letters they've already said. The moment one has started to spell coiffure with a "k," no recovery is possible.
What are the prizes?
Anyone who makes it to the finals gets a prize pack that includes a commemorative watch, a T-shirt that says "Spelling Ace," a dictionary on CD-ROM, a $100 US savings bond, and a cash prize of $50 or $75 depending on how many points they accumulated through the first two rounds.
Those who make it to the third or subsequent rounds can also look forward to escalating cash prizes: $300 for being eliminated in Round Five; $600 in Round Eight.
After that, awards are handed out by final placings; second place, for instance, is worth $12,000 US.
And the champion speller really cashes in.
There's fame (live coverage on prime time TV, a mention on national newscasts, pictures and stories in the local paper), and lots and lots of money.
The 2006 winner gets $42,000 US in cash, savings bonds and scholarships. The winner's school also gets a plack (sorry, make that plaque).