WASHINGTON — What does it all mean?
That's the question facing spelling whizzes across the country, who learned Tuesday that they will have to know the definitions of some of the those tough words they've been memorizing in the dictionary. For the first time, multiple-choice vocabulary tests will be added to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"Changes are not a surprise, but these changes are massive," said Mirle Shivashankar, whose daughter, 11-year-old Vanya, is among the favorites after finishing tied for 10th last year. "It came as a shocker. ... We're going to have to change the way we prepare a little bit."
The changes will make it easier to nail down the nine to 12 competitors who make it to the final round, which will look the same as it has for years to prime-time TV viewers, with spellers taking turns until only the champion has avoided the familiar doomsday bell. The changes do add a wrinkle to the televised semifinals, however, as even the best onstage spellers could find themselves eliminated from the finals if they perform poorly on the multiple-choice test.
"I'm on an email group and we talk about spelling, and a lot of the returning spellers were really, like, shocked, and they were surprised about the change that's happened," Vanya Shivashankar said. "But it's going to be really cool and fun to see how the bee will be because it will be spelling and vocabulary."
Executive Director Paige Kimble said the changes were driven by the desire to 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.
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 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 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 vocabulary tests will take place in private rooms and will not be part of the television broadcasts, but they will count for 50 percent of the point totals that determine the semifinalists and finalists.
"In the long run I think it's a change for the better because it tests spellers' all-around knowledge of the word as opposed to just the spelling of the word," said 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali, also one of the favorites after finishing third the past two years.
But what about right now? Arvind and the rest of the 281 spellers in this year's bee now have less than two months to change their study habits ahead of the May 28-30 competition near Washington.
"I'm just going to review all the words for their meanings one more time, if I have enough time," Arvind said. "But it's going to be a little difficult to adjust to this right now."
Shivashankar, who coached daughter Kavya to the 2009 title and now coaches Vanya, said he thinks there's a good purpose behind the changes, but he wishes they had been announced at the start of the school year.
While Shivashankar was concerned about the anxiety the changes could add to an already nerve-racking competition, his daughter already sounded ready to tackle the challenge.
"We're just going to try to do our best and understand the words more," Vanya said. "Before we were studying the roots, and now we're using the root to understand what it means, which we kind of did before, but we have to spend more time on each word, understanding every single part of it."
While the finals format remains unchanged, the televised semifinals will have a different payoff. Spellers will continue to be eliminated if they misspell on stage, but there will be only two semifinal rounds. The results of those rounds will be combined with the computerized spelling and vocabulary tests to select the finalists.
The issue of determining the number of finalists has 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.
The bee, working with its television partners, usually prefers to have nine to 12 spellers in the finals. That will be easier to accomplish now because the bee can take the spellers with the most points, with wiggle room to account for ties.
"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 national bee waited until all the regional bees were completed to make the announcement so that everyone would start on equal footing. The national bee will supply materials and suggestions to help local bees introduce a vocabulary test next year, Kimble said.
"In the long run, it's pretty good, right?" said Srinivas Mahankali, Arvind's father. "But in the short-term for the competitors right now, I think it's a little more complicating, definitely."