Tuesday, April 9, 2013

BEE SURPRISED:  They are adding two vocabulary quizzes to the National Spelling Bee, starting this year, among several major changes to the competition. As this flowchart (fixed, because for once in my life I got to ding the BeeKeepers) and the rules explain, it now goes like this:
  • spelling+vocab computer quiz Tuesday morning.
  • two live rounds on Wednesday, but if you're wrong on either, you're out, period -- acing the computer quiz cannot save you. (I forget if anyone has been so saved in recent year.)
  • Computer quiz + Wednesday live round results yields a cut down to 50.
  • Another spelling+vocab computer quiz Wednesday night.
  • Two, and only two, live rounds Thursday morning afternoon. Ding-and-out.
  • No matter what happens, even if you've gotten all four live rounds correct, you can still be cut before prime time.  They're trying to take no more than twelve, but at least nine spellers into prime time. Read carefully:  "Beginning at 72 on the chart, spellers at each consecutive scoring level are added until a sum of no more than 12 spellers has been attained. All remaining spellers are eliminated unless, in the course of applying the maximum of 12 standard, it appears that fewer than nine spellers will qualify for the Championship Finals: in this circumstance, spellers at the next consecutive scoring level (or levels) may be named as Championship Finalists if, in sole determination of Bee officials, there is sufficient time and word list content to accommodate additional spellers in the Championship Finals."
  • Championship finals appear to be the same, except it's on ESPN this year, not interfering with Shondaland. 
I like the idea of adding vocabulary to the Bee, though not at this late date for this year's competition. I expect that this was also motivated in part by ESPN's (or the Bee's) desire to have greater control over the timing of Thursday's competition, that they could make sure to hit their target number for primetime through means other that (what has seemed to be) artificially adjusting the difficulty of the word list between and within rounds.

Which leads to the fundamental question: are we okay with a Bee in which many kids will be eliminated not be spelling a word wrong on stage, but by performance in a private, computerized competition? Clear pros and cons -- it spares these young people that public moment of failure, which can be both scarring and motivating -- but it also deprives the audience of the full drama. I have long noted that the Bee is, in essence, a long process by which we see every kid (but one) misspell a word, which is ironic and more than a little sad, but putting myself back in my early adolescent hypercompetitive brain, I think that's what the kids want -- win or lose (and likely lose), to have it happen on the stage, in that moment of spotlight and pressure.

My thoughts on this are not firm, and obviously I'd love to hear from our broader Bee community on this one.

added: As Bee veteran Joseph White of the AP now reports, this is, in part, a response to the the 2010 debacle when a Thursday afternoon round was cut short because too many kids were being eliminated, leading kids in the back-of-the-alphabet states a shortcut to primetime.

added 4.10.03: One writer wonders whether this might have a disproportionate impact against Indian-American spellers, who may be more likely to go the memorization route.


  1. isaac_spaceman11:21 AM

    This is great. And they should also only televise the last three minutes of basketball and football games and condense all baseball games to highlights clips. ESPN itself could go dark 22 hours of the day.

  2. My biggest concern with this is that this is a pretty late in the game rules change for this year, and isn't exactly fair to spring on kids a month before the Bee (and not have been incorporated into lower level competitions). I do think it's a good idea, ultimately, since it transforms the Bee into something that's more comprehensive and practical. (I'll be interested to see what it does to demographics as well, in particular with respect to the home-school people who've been very successful.)

  3. Given that March Madness is, in essence, a long process by which we see every team (but one) lose their biggest game of the season -- which is ironic and more than a little sad -- I think the networks should limit their coverage to just the final game. Which, fortuitously, could be moved to March.

  4. Charles12:22 PM

    I'm curious as the reasoning for the change--and why they decided to implement it so soon before this year's event. I'm wondering if adding the vocabulary component makes the competition more attractive for schools/sponsors facing tough financial times. (They have to pay to be part of the Bee, after all.)

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  6. Samir2:28 PM

    This is an interesting concept and I'm honestly not entirely opposed to the idea of incorporating vocabulary; learning to spell obscure/esoteric words (of the sort asked in the championship rounds) has no value in and of itself beyond the general benefits of academic competitions (persistence, motivation, etc). Putting more of a focus on vocabulary could definitely be a value-add as long as the Bee focuses on words the kids will be able to leverage in high school and beyond - SAT or business-style vocabulary rather than the meanings of random words nobody uses.

    That being said, I'm curious as to whether this information was disseminated to spellers prior to being announced publicly, because if not, it's definitely totally unfair to kids who've spent significant amounts of time studying. Separately, I do think the setup detracts from the fun of the Bee for the kids, but perhaps that's a separate issue - it's feasible to incorporate a vocabulary quiz without dramatically altering the landscape of the oral rounds.

    I'll hold off on further commentary until I've looked into this more; this is just the view from 5,000 miles.

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  9. Uncle Spike10:03 PM

    My jaw dropped when I learned of the change - in my mind, the single biggest change to the bee in history, even more than the original institution of the written test at the national level - and I was particularly disturbed to learn that no, spellers and families had not learned of this before this morning. Out went the rug beneath everyone today. And I am very curious to see how this will play out in DC.
    Having said that, I think it's a good development - with some reservations. The national competition has gotten so stiff that mere memorization of words is woefully inadequate, and knowledge of etymology (and by extension, definitions) is imperative to success. Partially because of this, I'm not sure how much incorporating a vocabulary portion will change the game in the long run. Finally, there have long been quibbles about the first word in the title "National Spelling Bee." Now that the possibility of an international spelling bee has been legitimately raised, we can move on to query about how appropriate that second word is now. Should it be the "National Spelling and Vocabulary Bee"? The "National English Language Bee"? This might be a facile point, but it comes to mind all the same.
    Before I went to DC last year, I learned that Scripps did not have a policy in place to avert a reenactment of the 2010 debacle, which really unnerved me. As it happened, the 2012 bee ran quite smoothly. I wouldn't be surprised if this game change was announced now, instead of prior to the 2014 season, to eliminate the possibility of 2010 repeating itself sooner than later. And to this end, I think it's a good development. Just not the greatest of timing for spellers.
    As to the question of eliminations offstage vs. on, regardless of how spellers perform, all will get at least some stage time. It may be somewhat anticlimactic for them to spell two words correctly, then not make it to the semifinals, for example, but that's no change from last year or the year before. I can draw somewhat of a parallel with figure skating in the past, where part of a skater's score was determined by public performance, and part was determined by compulsory figures closed to the public, which were not tremendously exciting, but ultimately equally as important as the public performance. Purists cried bloody murder when the compulsories were eliminated from competition from the Olympics, but in the public's eye, it just didn't make sense when someone who skated an inferior program snatched the gold because of a superior performance that no one but judges and coaches saw.

  10. Adam B.10:23 PM

    It's the second cut-down which I find frustrating. Up-to-50 survive to Thursday, they spell two rounds live (cutting the list down further), but getting that list down to 9-12 is going to be based on a second computerized test, not live spelling. You're going to have a dozen kids, maybe more, who got all four live rounds correct and are going home because of 1-2 errors on the computer. Not crazy about that.

  11. BeeFan11:24 AM

    Kind of messed up they're just now announcing it and the kids only have about 6 weeks to study for it. Talk about getting punk'd. For this year anyway, this seems to give an advantage to older kids and kids who already have big vocabularies.

  12. BeeFan11:31 AM

    The thing I find the most disturbing is the fact that a kid can now be eliminated despite not misspelling a single word.

  13. Scott Isaacs2:03 PM

    Both Adam and BeeFan: Good, very good points. I hadn't considered them before. Scripps will almost certainly get some flak from this development for various reasons, and they will probably try to change things around for next year to make it more fair. (One thing I've seen over the years is that Scripps seems very unafraid of change, and if the bee gets screwed up one year, it's usually addressed by the next year. Of course, there's that one bee that gets screwed up that provides a lot of cannon fodder and potentially unhappy spellers and families. Here's hoping this year's bee runs as smoothly as possible.)

  14. jsb141211:03 AM

    It's just sad. I can't figure out how to prepare now :(

  15. jsb141211:06 AM

    Yeah Scripps changes it all the time, next year they'll decide that it was just a bad idea. As far as fairness goes, my main problem is that in parts C and D of both computerized tests (not that I'll make it to the semifinals test anyway), they are giving unique words (each speller gets their own word). So, in the vocab part of the Preliminaries test Part C, I will be given a Spell It! word. I could be given "sequin" or "schnecke." not really fair there, and at least we have a list for Parts C and D as they are vocabulary, but in the Semifinals Test, they will not be from any list. Go figure. On the Speller&Parent conference call, several parents were mad about this but Paige kept saying they will "see about it" and "consider changes next year."