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Thank G-O-O-D-N-E-S-S: The National Spelling Bee Adds Meaning

Spellers wait to participate in the semi-finals of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Spellers wait to participate in the semi-finals of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

As Eyder Peralta reported last night, the National Spelling Bee has made a big change to its rules.

For the first time, the written (or computerized) test students use to qualify for the semifinals and championship finals will include vocabulary questions requiring them to know the meanings of words, not just the spelling. The Bee's sample questions suggest that they'll be simple multiple-choice questions, not necessarily asking the student to identify the definition, but asking something like this:

Where would a campestral scene take place?

a) in the country
b) in a city
c) at the beach
d) in a warehouse

It's a welcome change for two reasons, both of which grow out of the fact that every kid in the Bee encounters two groups of words: (1) the ones they know, and (2) the ones they don't.

The first involves the words they don't know, and it seems designed to coax students into taking an existing Bee skill and applying it in the opposite direction. Bee watchers know that students at high levels generally ask for the meanings of words they're asked to spell already, and they'll still be able to do that. That, combined with asking about the language of origin and alternate spellings, helps the student assemble the correct spelling of a word even if they are not familiar with it.

The vocabulary questions will ask students to do the opposite: take a word that's spelled right in front of them (like "campestral") and, if they don't know it already, take the spelling apart and figure out what it most likely means. These questions will require them to reverse that process, and just as you know state capitals better if you can go from state to city or city to state, it makes sense to encourage kids to be able to go from spelling to meaning just as they can go from meaning to spelling.

The other reason it's welcome is the way it might change preparation habits by encouraging kids to expand that list of words they know, not only in that they can spell them when they hear them, but also in that they know what they mean. If studying involves learning both the spelling of unfamiliar words and the meanings, then students may wind up actually adding those words to their brains and lives, rather than just learning to recite them.

While the Bee is an entertaining opportunity to watch lots of wonderful, huggable nerds, the vast (overwhelmingly vast) majority of kids in the Bee system are not the ones you see on television, but the ones who work their way up through school and local competitions and drop off somewhere before the trip to Washington. Those kids represent most of the educational good that the Bee is doing, and it makes sense for them to be encouraged to do the most actually enriching things they can. They're better off knowing from the outset that meanings matter, that being able to wield a word or read it on a page and understand it is what will mean the most when their Bee years are over.

The Bee at its best is not rote memorization of the largest number of words, divorced from context and floating outside of sentences and spoken in the reassuringly familiar voice of Dr. Bailly. It's kids who love words, who understand how language is assembled and how Greek roots differ from Latin ones.

But the words are getting more and more tenuously connected to kids' lives. As recently as 1994, the winning word was "antediluvian." That's a ten-cent word, sure, but it's a word you might hear. Ten years before that, it was "luge." Heck, in 1967, it was "chihuahua," and in 1935, it was "intelligible."

Last year, the winning word was "guetapens." In 2011, it was "cymotrichous." In 2010, it was "stromuhr." When kids are spelling words that it's extremely unlikely they would encounter in any setting other than the Spelling Bee, it seems like a valuable addition to encourage them to spend hours and hours not merely studying word lists, but learning the language better.

There's an editorial in The Los Angeles Times this morning, arguing that the rule change is absurd and saying this:

The bee has always been a show of amazing memorization skills, not of enhanced vocabulary. It has nothing to do with concepts, except the concept of kids working their brains off committing long lists of long words to memory. Correct English usage? Please.

Oddly, what is supposed to be a defense of the speller's ethic seems to me to massively underestimate what these kids are doing. They're not merely "committing long lists of words to memory," or they wouldn't ask for word origins or pause in the middle of words. They are language students, not walking bar bets. Why on earth, after all, would we ask 11-year-olds to participate in anything to which they were expected to devote hundreds of hours of preparation that had "nothing to do with concepts"? If it has nothing to do with concepts, it's just a cute trick, like teaching a kid to recite the Gettysburg Address without having any idea what it means or when it was given.

I don't think these kids mean to be doing tricks, and if they are, then the Bee is well within its rights — and its mission — to try to steer them back to concepts. Don't worry: they'll still be great to watch.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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