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With vocabulary more important than ever, National Spelling Bee requires different prep

By BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press
Published: May 31, 2023, 6:00am
4 Photos
Sanchali Bohacek, 14, from Seattle, competes during the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Oxon Hill, Md.
Sanchali Bohacek, 14, from Seattle, competes during the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard) Photo Gallery

OXON HILL, Md. — Navneeth Murali would strongly prefer for the Scripps National Spelling Bee to get rid of the onstage, multiple-choice vocabulary questions that were introduced to the competition two years ago.

“It’s sort of hit or miss, the onstage vocab format, and it’s sort of brutal in my opinion,” the 17-year-old former speller said.

The vocabulary questions are part of a series of changes to the post-pandemic bee, which is leaner and, in some ways, meaner. Accomplished spellers can be bounced from the bee without ever misspelling a word. And because there is no alternative path to the bee as there was in the late 2010s, the regional bees spellers must win to qualify can be incredibly tense, and sometimes shocking. Last year’s national runner-up, Vikram Raju, didn’t make it back in his final year of eligibility.

The tweaks help ensure the bee, which began Tuesday with the preliminary rounds and concludes Thursday, finishes on schedule with a sole champion. That’s an important consideration after the eight-way tie of 2019. But some in the spelling community say they make the competition more dependent on luck and less about rewarding spellers for their years spent mastering roots and language patterns and exploring the farthest reaches of Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged dictionary.

During their initial appearances onstage Tuesday at a convention center outside Washington, spellers were asked to spell one word and define another, both from a list provided in advance. Of the 229 spellers, 57 were ousted for misspelling (24.9 percent), while 33 of the 172 who spelled their first word correctly (19.2 percent) got vocabulary answers wrong.

“Scripps has done a good job of evolving and not staying fixed in place, even if some of the particular choices they make, I would not myself have made if I were in their shoes,” said Scott Remer, a former speller, study guide author and coach who is tutoring 29 competitors in this year’s bee.

Navneeth, a high school junior from Edison, New Jersey, had his last, best chance to win a national title wiped out by the pandemic in 2020, and he has since poured his energy into coaching. Along with another ex-speller-turned-guru, Grace Walters, he mentored last year’s champion, Harini Logan.

The way Navneeth sees it, the SAT-style vocabulary questions are here to stay, and there’s no excuse for spellers not to be prepared.

“Last year, I did miss on a vocabulary word, and it felt like it was the type of vocabulary word I should have known,” said 13-year-old Shradha Rachamreddy of San Jose, California, one of Navneeth’s pupils. “They’re not obscure. It’s a mix of general knowledge and specific speller knowledge.”

During Navneeth’s time as a speller, vocabulary was only part of a written test that also included spelling. It was important — the test score determined who made the semifinals — but the stakes weren’t as high. Spellers could get a few definitions wrong and still make it through.

Now, vocabulary rounds are sprinkled through the onstage competition, and if a speller gets one multiple-choice question wrong, they’re out. Yet Navneeth still observes spellers treating vocabulary as an afterthought in their preparation. His students have been working on it for a full year, and he also wrote a book, “Defining Success,” intended to help spellers prepare for the vocabulary portion.

“Since the stakes are much higher, it’s not something you can wing,” Navneeth said. “It’s something that you need to prepare for and practice and get used to. Because I’ve placed an emphasis on it from the beginning of the next season, I feel that it’s something my students are primed for.”

SURPRISING ABSENCE

Vikram, last year’s runner-up, took eventual champion Harini all the way to a “spell-off” — Scripps’ term for its lightning-round tiebreaker. He looked forward to returning this year as an eighth-grader, the last school year in which spellers are eligible.

Instead, Vikram was bounced in his regional bee in Denver, which lasted 53 rounds over a span of more than five hours. Vikram and his parents argued that he misspelled because the bee’s pronouncer made one of several mistakes, but their appeal was unsuccessful.

“The bee went so deep off-list, there were several words that Vikram had to actually anticipate what the word might be based on the language or the definition,” said his mother, Sandhya Ayyar. “After these several rounds, he reached a point where, ‘I don’t know what’s the word or what I’m supposed to spell here.’”

In 2018 or 2019, Vikram still could have gone to nationals, because Scripps had a wild-card program meant to ensure that spellers from highly competitive regions had a chance to compete on the biggest stage. However, the program was open to spellers of widely varying abilities as long as their families were able to pay their way, and the 2019 bee swelled to more than 500 competitors, some of whom clearly didn’t belong.

Scripps had planned to curtail the wild cards in 2020, making them available only to eighth-graders like Vikram who had previously competed at nationals. But that bee was canceled because of the pandemic, and in 2021, Scripps got rid of the wild cards altogether. Ayyar’s request to Scripps to bring them back this year was rebuffed.

Corrie Loeffler, the bee’s executive director, wouldn’t rule out creating a new qualifying system in the future, but she declined to change this year’s competition rules retroactively.

“We heard from a handful of people, and it’s a tough thing,” Loeffler said. “You’re talking about kids who have worked really hard and want the opportunity to show off what they’ve worked for, and that’s something we don’t take lightly, but we also take the rules of our competition very seriously.

“I feel for Vikram very strongly, especially as a former speller. I told his parents that; I told him that. He has so much to be proud of. That spell-off from last year, nobody is going to forget that.”

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UNAVOIDABLE ABSENCE

The bee began with television host Paul Loeffler — Corrie’s brother — sending well wishes to 12-year-old Lance Sanchez of Guam, who was unable to travel to Washington to compete because the U.S. territory’s airport was closed by Typhoon Mawar. Lance is a sixth-grader and has two years of eligibility remaining.

Ben Nuckols has covered the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2012. Follow him at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols

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