On to lesson #3:

“The pronouncer should stick with the word list during the bee as determined prior to the bee.”

When I was competing in the regional spelling bee in 1988, I was the favorite to win, having won the previous year. In fact, I was so much the favorite, that when we went “out of the book,” the pronouncer told me that “this next word seems too easy for you,” and chose to move on to a more difficult word. (The word he passed over was “whirligig,” and he chose to give me “incontrovertible” instead.) Perhaps the pronouncer thought he was being more fair to the other contestants, but in actuality, it was placing me at an unfair disadvantage, and there were some vocal protests before I spelled. If I had missed “incontrovertible,” I would certainly have protested such a bad decision on the pronouncer’s part, and depending on the judges’ whims, I might or might not have been reinstated. It is precisely this capriciousness that unnecessarily makes a bee unfair.

Ideally, the spelling order of an oral competition should be randomized, so that neither pronouncer, judge, nor speller knows which word will be given to which speller ahead of time. (There are good reasons that competitors in the National Spelling Bee spell in alphabetical order according to the state or country they are representing, so we will let that go as an exception.) With this in mind, it is entirely within the realm of reason for a pronouncer to change the order of the list he or she has been given for a bee. In years past, the list given to regional bee coordinators was meant as a guideline, but not a clad-in-stone list. Those in charge of the word list were told they could omit words, add words, or change the order of words in the list as they felt was appropriate – before the bee began. I still feel that this is fine to do, as long as the word difficulty remains consistent from round to round. (For example, it’s probably not a good idea to place the words “weird” and “corroborate” in the same round.) I’m not sure that this is still the policy at a regional or state level, nor if it is even allowed, but for school, county, and district bees, I would stick to this guideline. Of course, people in charge of the word list do not have to do anything if they don’t want to; Scripps does a perfectly fine job establishing words that are appropriate and relatively consistent for school bees as well as for state or regional bees.

Incidentally, the pronouncer also should ensure that every word given during a single round is either from a list that every speller has had access to, or from a list that no speller has had access to. Combining known words with unknown words within a single round adds, again, an unnecessary factor of unfairness.

Once a bee begins, every effort must be made to follow the order of the list, with no exceptions. It doesn’t matter if an excellent speller receives an easy word, or if a mediocre speller receives an exceptionally difficult word. It shouldn’t matter if the pronouncer has a hard time pronouncing the word (see lesson #1), nor should it matter if the pronouncer finds out too late that the word has a homonym that makes the pronouncer uncomfortable. In the former case, this is simply “the luck of the draw,” an established and accepted aspect of every bee that cannot be overcome. In the latter case, this points to a pronouncer’s lack of preparation ahead of time. Occasionally, there are trip-ups, like when a pronouncer unwittingly and accidentally skips a word, and guess what? We’re all human, and it happens from time to time. (This has even happened at the national level on more than one occasion.) But when words are intentionally omitted or added in during the bee, this becomes at least uncomfortable, and at worst, devastating.

To continue my story from above, when I was one word away from victory at the 1988 regional bee, the pronouncer AGAIN stated that he thought the next word was too easy, and wanted to give me a different word. At this, more people in the audience yelled their protests, as well as the bee’s director, who stood up and yelled, “Just give him the word!” from mere feet away. The pronouncer, properly cowed, assented, and gave me “appellant” for the win. And despite the fact that I knew the word, I still think it was appropriate for a winning word, and not overly easy.