As seems to happen every year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has taken on some new twists, the likes of which send some spellers and parents to ask me if I’m familiar with the changes. In most cases, I have to tell them that no, this is just as new to me as it is to them.
Some things remain comfortingly the same: Dr. Jacques Bailly’s avuncular presence as the pronouncer, executive director Paige Kimble’s confident smile greeting everyone at the beginning of the morning, program manager Corrie Loeffler’s pleasant and sure direction before the written test, and head judge Mary Brooks’s comforting assurance that everyone in the room is rooting for every speller…including the judges themselves. 2014 finalist Kate Miller, from Abilene, Texas, returned to give spellers a quick tutorial on how to approach the microphone expediently, since keeping a competition of 285 spellers running on time is vital. Miller also got a chance to spell – correctly – the word that knocked her out last year. After adding the errant “h” in exochorion at the microphone, she sighed, “Ahh…closure.”
However, the preliminaries written test changed significantly this year. In the past, this test had been administered by computer in a sequestered room, under the tightest of security. Only spellers and staff members were allowed into the testing room. Today, in sharp contrast, the test was open to the public. Anyone who wanted to could stroll into the Maryland Ballroom at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center and listen to Dr. Bailly pronouncing the words…not to mention see his face on large screens flanking both sides of the giant stage. As for the test itself, it was a combination of vocabulary and spelling as in years past, but this time, all 26 questions – not just the vocabulary questions – were multiple choice, and graded on a Scantron sheet. Spellers were also allowed to keep their question sheets afterward, and many could be seen going over their questions in the ballroom immediately after the test was finished.
Paige Kimble made sure of two things today. First, she emphasized the wisdom of taking a deep breath when under a lot of stress (indeed, this was the very first thing she did today when she greeted everyone during this morning’s orientation session). Second, she discouraged comparing this year’s test to last year’s test, as well as individual results amongst fellow competitors, since results can vary widely from year to year and from competitor to competitor. Kimble also brought up a very important point: out of the 285 spellers competing on this year’s stage, by tomorrow evening, fewer than 50 will continue on to the semifinals to be held on Thursday morning. Inevitably, this will result in plenty of disappointed and dejected spellers and family members on Wednesday evening. Still, Kimble encouraged those spellers who would be eliminated to stay and cheer on their friends who qualify for the semifinals.
One of the biggest changes to the National Spelling Bee this year has been established by ESPN. Once the semifinalists are announced on Wednesday evening, they will be placed and ranked on a leaderboard, similar to that seen on televised golf tournaments. It seems that this is to address the complaint of home viewers who didn’t understand last year why some spellers were eliminated from the finals, despite spelling every word correctly online or on television. This year, viewers can watch the bee, see preliminary and semifinal written test scores, and understand why some spellers are eliminated prior to the finals.
But for now, all 285 spellers have completed the preliminaries written test. All 285 have some idea of how they did on that test – numerically, at least – and all 285 will spell on stage tomorrow, for at least one round. Best of luck to them all!