What do these words have in common? They are all winning words from the Scripps National Spelling Bee, dating back to the first bee in 1925 (gladiolus) through 2013 (knaidel). For 85 tournaments, the spelling bee never included a vocabulary component—though contestants have always been allowed to ask for the meaning of a word during the competition. This year, a vocabulary quiz incorporated into the preliminary round makes it easier to narrow down which contestants advance to the finals. A contestant’s score on the vocabulary test and onstage spelling combine to form his or her cumulative score.

The change to the spelling bee marks a shift in the competition from rote memorization to actual understanding of the words. In a press release, Paige Kimble, director of the spelling bee, explained, “Spelling and vocabulary are, in essence, two sides of the same coin. . .As a child learns the meaning of a word, it becomes easier to spell.” She also added that the change reflects the bee’s commitment to “develop correct English usage” that competitors can retain long after they leave the stage.

However, the change came less than two months before the national spelling bee date of May 28, 2013, giving competitors little time to adjust their training strategy. Both parents and kids admitted they were not fans of the time crunch, but that adding a vocabulary component seemed beneficial to the future of the bee. And there was a justifiable reason for delaying the announcement—Scripps waited until all qualifying regional bees were completed.

With a $30,000 prize and a bit of national glory on the line, it’s understandable that contestants were taken aback by this change. Many contestants trained all year for the bee, so adding in a vocabulary portion just weeks before the competition seemed to diminish their hard work. An editorial in The Express-Times of Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, acknowledged the possible benefits of the change, but opined that it was simply unfair to competitors who spent months preparing for a specific type of competition.

Karen Klein, writing for the Los Angeles Times, also opposed the change, explaining that “[t]he bee has always been a show of amazing memorization skills, not of enhanced vocabulary.” Many people agreed with Klein that a spelling bee is not about definitions or concepts, but simply a memory game. In a similar blog entry, Ben Zimmer wrote in The Boston Globe that Kimble, however, claimed that memorization was never supposed to be the sole skill utilized for the spelling bee. She explained that vocabulary upholds “the mission of the E. W. Scripps Co., the media conglomerate that operates the not-for-profit bee.”

Regardless, the 2013 Scripps Spelling Bee proved successful on May 30 with 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali claiming the championship. As expected, contestants were subjected to two multiple-choice vocabulary tests before the preliminaries and semifinals, though both occurred offscreen. And the bee was broadcast on ESPN—just one indication of the spelling bee’s expanding popularity in spite of its evolutionary growing pains.

Did You Know?
The Scripps National Spelling Bee came into national limelight in the early 2000s when books and movies about the bee began trending. Bee Season, starring Richard Gere, was released in 2005 and based on a novel of the same name by Myla Goldberg. This was shortly followed by the bee’s stint on Broadway in a show titled The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a long one-act musical comedy nominated for six Tony awards and featured a cast recording nominated for a Grammy. Just the next year, Akeelah and the Bee, starring recording artist Keke Palmer, documented a girl’s journey through various levels of the bee and highlighted education issues in a low socioeconomic African American community. Spelldown: The Big-Time Dreams of a Small-Town Word Whiz, by Karon Luddy and released in 2007, followed a girl from South Carolina, telling her fictional account of what it was like competing in the bee with a “spelling jinx.” One of the first, however, was an Academy Award-nominated documentary cleverly titled Spellbound that follows eight competitors of the 1999 youth lineup, including the national winner—it was released in 2002. (DYK by Emeli Warren)