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A Spelling Bee Reboot

The country's biggest spelling bee adds definitions to the competition.

By Jennifer Marino Walters

The pressure is on as would-be spelling champions must now also know word definitions to qualify for the semifinals. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)  

People are buzzing about a big change to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Contestants have always been able to ask for definitions during the Bee to help them spell words. Now, they’ll need to already know the definitions.

For the first time ever, spellers will have to know the meanings, not just the spellings, of words. Multiple-choice vocabulary tests will now be a part of the early rounds of the competition.

“This is a significant change in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but also a natural one,” says Paige Kimble, the Bee’s director. “It represents a deepening of the Bee’s commitment . . . to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage.”

A written or computer-based spelling test has been part of the Bee for years. Now spellers will also have to take a computer-based vocabulary test, which will count for half of their overall scores. The overall scores will determine which spellers advance to the televised semifinals and championship finals.


The Scripps National Spelling Bee started in 1925 with nine contestants. This year, 281 spellers will compete in the Bee, which takes place near Washington, D.C. The contestants are all winners of local spelling bees, which were held before the end of March. The addition of the vocabulary portion to the Bee was announced earlier this month to give all spellers the same amount of time—less than two months—to prepare. Spellers had mixed feelings about the change.

“It’s going to be a little difficult to adjust to this,” 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali, one of the favorites this year, told reporters. “[But] in the long run, I think it’s . . . for the better because it tests spellers’ all-around knowledge of the word.”

“A lot of the returning spellers were really . . . surprised about the change,” 11-year-old Vanya Shivashankar, also a favorite, told reporters. “[Now] we have to spend more time on each word, understanding every single part of it.”

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