2022 – How the Miniature National Spelling Bee might regain its pre-pandemic sting | National Spelling Bee

aAfter a disappointing cancellation in 2020 and a largely hypothetical event last year, Scripps National Spelling Bee is back in person. Of course, 2020 and 2021 weren’t lost: spelling bees thrived online, including my country, and in 2021 the first African-American champion was crowned. But this year some semblance of life is back to normal – with Le Var Burton hosting the event! – It will undoubtedly delight logophiles and tiki lovers alike.

The Bee became an American cultural institution. Watching elementary and middle school students grapple with words under high pressure and strict time constraints β€” just 90 seconds to ask questions and 30 seconds to spell β€” is fascinating. The Bee rewards discipline, memory, and linguistic prowess: what you see on stage is the culmination of hundreds of hours of work, with speaker parents and teachers, like me, playing supporting roles. The thirty or so words that are given to the speller on stage represent the surface of a deep reservoir of knowledge. A competition with an uncompromising commitment to learning that has thrived for over 90 years should be cause for celebration.

But many changes threaten the future of bees. Traditionally, territorial bees are sponsored by local newspapers and community organizations, but the decline of print publications has left large parts of the United States without regional competitions. The National Spelling Bee kept bees free to fill the void, but these bees have too few to compensate. Among the remaining regional spelling bees, in order to save and assuage ongoing Covid concerns, regulators have turned to hypothetical bees, which are vulnerable to fraud. Some regions have even replaced live competitions with computer-based quizzes that are relatively easy to play. These changes weakened the national sphere.

The pool has been greatly reduced. In 2019, 535 speakers competed. This year there will be 234 spellers β€” a slight bounce from last year’s total of 209. The main reason for this is that Scripps has canceled its RSVBee invite program, an arrangement that allowed speakers from rival states like New Jersey, California and Texas to do what their former spelling achievements were shown and pay a fee, allowed them to participate in the citizens despite not winning a restricted territorial bee. In previous years, many powerful speakers, including champions, were RSVBee participants. The result of RSVBee’s comment is that the field is much weaker. As a teacher, I can attest that some of my best students – many of whom would have been finalists – will not make the Nationals because of the RSVBee gap.

Colette Gesintaner, 12, of St. Louis, Missouri, reacts with the correct spelling of the word in the final round of the 92nd annual Scripps National Spelling Contest in 2019. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Scripps’ decision to terminate RSVBee is likely based on a desire to simplify Bee’s logistics as Covid persists and attempt to neutralize economic inequality and “pay-to-play” allegations. But the regional disparity is unfair: a child in Wyoming would qualify as citizens much more easily than New Yorkers. Financially, by reintroducing RSVBee, Scripps will restore a significant source of income and can use that income to provide financial assistance or fund regional bees in bee-free areas. It could allow the Bee to make a comeback on ESPN, which could boost viewership.

Other rules have been changed in a way that affects the nature of the bee. On-stage sudden-death vocabulary rounds, in which spellers have 30 seconds to choose a word’s definition, have turned the bee into a “spelling and vocabulary bee.” Although I fully support β€œadvanc[ing] … Word knowledge and literacy ”(the justification given by Scripps), such a goal can be achieved as Scripps did earlier: by testing the preparation of half a vocabulary. Otherwise, you risk situations (as already happened last year) where children are excluded From a word like “wind” that is so diluted that it doesn’t seem fair to expect a seventh grader to know or discover it using word roots.

Another rule change is the introduction of a 90-second hold at the end of the contest. If the judges order the spelling of words, the finalists must spell as many words from the list as possible. The checker who spells the most words correctly wins. This sounds like a gimmick of a gaming show. In essence, Spelling Bee’s unique drama derives from the big stakes of every word: it’s all or nothing, one exclusion. By not punishing a missed word on stage, the spell completely destroys this aspect of the competition.

These changes are an attempt to avoid the eight tie that occurred in 2019. But as the author of a 446-page textbook containing several thousand difficult words, I can confidently say that the solution is simply to choose harder words. I applaud J. Michael Durnill, the new CEO of Bee, for his efforts to increase diversity, and I have great respect for the Laocoon efforts of the Bee organizers. Competing in such a big competition year after year, even in the midst of a pandemic, is impressive. I have fond memories of my spelling days and I dare say I am one of the biggest bee fans. I hope that by bringing back RSVBee (which Scripps himself considers a matter of fairness), revisiting the vocabulary and spelling components of the competition, and taking steps to revitalize the regional bee world, Scripps will ensure that the national spelling bee will be hot for many years to come.