Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Know What It Is You're Spelling

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Know What It Is You're Spelling

Article excerpt

The rules of the Scripps National Spelling Bee rarely make waves in the media. But this month, they did exactly that, when it was announced that the national competition at the end of May will, for the first time, involve questions about not just the spellings of words, but also their definitions.

To many, the change is a shocker.

Ever since the 2002 documentary "Spellbound" showed just how suspenseful competitive spelling could be, the once humble spelling bee has turned into a national spectator sport, with semifinals and finals broadcast as if they're the World Series. Those tuning in on ESPN may not notice much of a change because the definition questions are being added off stage: Contestants will be whittled down through computerized tests including both spelling questions and multiple-choice vocabulary questions.

Still, the fact that the test will evaluate vocabulary knowledge does mark a significant shift in the bee's 88-year history. The furor over this rule change exposes the uneasy tension between education and entertainment value at the heart of the bee. It also raises a question: Why do we think of a spelling contest as a telegenic sport but equate a definitions contest with dull, SAT- style standardized tests? Can't vocabulary be glamorous too?

Critics of the move see a kind of purity in a contest that is just about memorizing sequences of letters. "The bee has always been a show of amazing memorization skills, not of enhanced vocabulary," said Karin Klein, an editorial writer who covers education for the Los Angeles Times. "It has nothing to do with concepts, except the concept of kids working their brains off committing long lists of long words to memory."

But the National Spelling Bee director, Paige Kimble, told me that the bee was never intended to be just about rote memorization. "Vocabulary in essence has already been part of the bee," she said. She described the move as in keeping with the mission of the E. W. Scripps Co., the media conglomerate that operates the not-for- profit bee. "Our purpose is not only to help students improve their spelling but also to increase their vocabulary, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives. …

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