The National Spelling Bee’s Indefensible Move to Force Kids to Memorize Definitions

Language and how we use it.
May 28 2013 6:02 PM

Wait, I Have to Know What It Means, Too?

Shame on the Scripps National Spelling Bee for forcing contestants to memorize definitions.

Spelling Bee contestant Lena Greenberg of Philadelphia tries to spell her word during Round 6 of the 84th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee competition May 31, 2012, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Spelling Bee contestant Lena Greenberg of Philadelphia tries to spell her word during Round 6 of the 84th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee competition May 31, 2012, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 2006, a former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist named Emily Stagg wrote an op-ed in the New York Times advocating a big change in the competition. Stagg wasn’t just any speller; she was one of the children profiled in the documentary Spellbound, which helped catapult the Bee from annual curiosity to prime-time programming. Seven years after her spelling heroics (she finished sixth in the 1999 event chronicled in the film), Stagg wrote that while she loved being in the Bee, she now wondered “if the power and prestige this institution rightfully has are being used in the best way.”

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

“If education is really what we are after, can we change the bee to make it more useful for teaching real-world skills to some of the nation’s brightest students?” Stagg asked. Her answer: make the competitors learn the meanings of the words they are asked to spell. “After all, memorization of $5 words can’t be the most useful skill for these driven and capable students to develop,” she wrote.

The Bee’s organizers took up Stagg’s recommendation. For the first time since the first National Bee was held in 1925, definitions will be part of the competition. There are two reasons for the change. One is philosophical—that learning definitions will make the event more educational for its participants. The other is procedural—allowing the Bee to better accommodate its new overlord, television. Both are wrongheaded.

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To understand why, it’s important to understand the Bee’s new format: In the preliminary round, all of the qualifying spellers—281 at this year’s event, which will be held just outside of Washington, D.C., this week—take computer-based spelling and multiple-choice vocabulary tests. Everyone then moves on to two rounds of oral spelling (to be streamed online by ESPN) with the dinging bell and instant ejection for misspellings.

Points from the preliminary rounds are totaled, with the spelling and vocabulary portions each accounting for 50 percent of scores. The top 50 surviving spellers advance to the semifinals. Then comes another set of computer spelling and vocabulary tests, followed by two more rounds of live spelling (now on television on ESPN2). The points are added up again. A maximum of 12 spellers advance to the finals (in prime time on ESPN).

The details are important if you want to understand the flawed rationale behind altering the purpose and structure of what is, laugh if you must, an American classic. As I’ve argued before, watching awkward adolescents stammer and twitch and play orthographic air guitar is a guilty pleasure. Sure, the Bee celebrates the brilliance of children performing amazing acts of intellectual dexterity. But it also exploits, and—when coverage spills online—outright mocks geeky tween and early-teen discomfort. ESPN last year compiled a “Best of the Bee” highlight reel that includes various dorky moments, including the kid who fainted onstage (and whom no one rushed to check on).

The Bee on TV is a recent phenomenon. Before ESPN started showing it in 1994, the finals were televised only three times, live on NBC in 1946 and taped on PBS in 1974 and 1977. For more than a decade, ESPN showed the semifinals and finals live during the day. Its partner ABC took the finals into prime time in 2006, and they returned to ESPN in prime time in 2011.

For television, the Bee has always presented a format problem. Until this year, the semifinals continued until there were a dozen or so kids left, all of whom advanced to the finals. For the spellers, this was fair. The kids traveled from far and wide to spell aloud. The more they spelled aloud correctly, the more they deserved to move on. That’s everyone’s conception of a spelling bee, especially the National Bee. Starting this year, thanks to the exigencies of television, the best spellers will spell a maximum of just four words in the traditional manner en route to prime time. “Previously, we just knew that we were going to spell until we had a reasonable number of children to bring into the finals,” Scripps Bee director Paige Kimble told the Associated Press. “Now we have some definition around how that happens.”

Let’s be clear: That “definition” is for the benefit of the National Bee’s television partner, not the competitors. It was bad enough when the Bee was moved into prime time and sometimes stretched past the bedtimes not only of the participants but also of other children (my daughter, for one) who wanted to watch. Now TV is dictating how many kids get to stick around and spell some more. If you knew the cameras were showing up to film an event designed for the children who participate, it was easy to justify watching this. The fact that the Bee is being reformatted to satisfy ESPN’s scheduling needs should make everyone a bit more squeamish.

While the kids will spend less time spelling standing up—the fun, traditional part of bees—they’ll spend more sitting down, answering questions on a computer screen (50 in the preliminary round and 26 in the second), less than half of which will have to do with spelling. Here are some sample multiple-choice questions: “What does it mean to be intestate?” “Something described as corrigible is: ________” “Nomenclature has to do with: ________” “What does it mean to appertain?” The vocabulary quiz turns the Bee from a spelling competition into a standardized test. Just what kids need more of.

In a statement, Kimble said the vocabulary testing “represents a deepening of the Bee’s commitment to its purpose: to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.” Spelling and vocabulary are, she said, “two sides of the same coin.” When a kid studies spelling, Kimble continued, he learns about etymology and meaning. When he learns meanings, spelling becomes easier.

All true, as far as it goes. But that’s not what a spelling bee is, or what the National Bee has been. The goal of a spelling bee is to spell words correctly. Meanings, in this instance, don’t matter. The order of the letters is what matters. How the speller gets there—by learning definitions or by employing other mnemonic techniques—is, or should be, completely up to the speller.

What the Scripps people are saying is that spelling on its own isn’t educational enough, that simply learning the correct sequence of letters that constitute the correct spelling of a word is a lesser exercise without the simultaneous assimilation of the word’s meaning. That’s high-minded—who can argue with making kids know the definitions of the words that come out of their mouths?—but it’s also small-minded. It’s perfectly fine and, in fact, healthy to use language narrowly, to strip words of their context and history and meaning, and to teach kids that that’s OK.

We do that all the time, not only in spelling bees but in word searches and Games magazine puzzles and Will Shortz’s Sunday spots on NPR and my passion, competitive Scrabble, in which players learn thousands and thousands of letter strings with the sole purpose of laying them down on a board. As Dmitri Borgmann, the father of modern wordplay, wrote in his 1965 book Language on Vacation, “Language consists of words, and words can be looked at as objects of art, to be examined and evaluated, admired or criticized, accepted or rejected.”

That’s exactly what the National Bee does, and its participants, wittingly or not, embrace and reflect and promote the idea that language is complex and beautiful. Top competitors pore over word lists and spell along with computerized word pronouncers. They dog-ear copies of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the unabridged, 2,662-page book that is the official word source. Last year’s champion, 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego, said she studied six hours a day on weekdays and 10 to 12 hours a day on weekends to prepare for the bee. That reflects a remarkable love of words, no matter how limited their purpose, and it develops all sorts of “real-world” and “useful” skills, from discipline to competition to a recognition that language is broad and deep and cool.

Top spellers face enormous pressure to prepare for and perform in what has evolved into a high-stakes event witnessed by more than a million people. They already understand the utility of definitions, as well as etymologies and parts of speech, in helping to suss out correct spellings. Now, just six weeks before this year’s Bee, the adult organizers have moved the spelling goalposts in a big way, imposing new pressure on the kids and placing spellers who haven’t focused on definitions at a disadvantage to those who have. “Changes are not a surprise, but these changes are massive,” the father of one top speller told the AP.

The big shame here is that the spellers are being asked to alter their approach on the fly to make the Bee itself look better. Learning the meanings of the words they will be asked to spell—vivisepulture, succedaneum, pococurante, cymotrichous, guetapens—won’t make these children any smarter, more driven, or more appreciative of language and education than they already are.

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