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On April 9, 2013, Scripps announced an unprecedented change to the format of the National Spelling Bee. For the first time in history, vocabulary would be part of the written test. And lo, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The 281 national competitors and their parents, teachers, and coaches all felt as if the rug had been pulled out from beneath them. I was among them. I mean, we all had prepared purely for a spelling bee for the past year. And with two months to go, now we have to alter course and study vocabulary as well?

But after a few days of reflection, I figured that all spellers were in the same boat together. All would live and die by the same sword. Scripps didn’t need to make the vocabulary test difficult and painful this first time, right? Well, fortunately, that is exactly what happened. The vocabulary test was appropriately approachable, and competitors were grateful.

However, since then, spellers have realized that learning vocabulary is essential to success at Scripps. It has become a regular part of spelling bee preparation. And accordingly, the vocabulary portion of the written test in DC has become significantly more difficult.

Spelling vs. vocabulary

Spelling well requires memorization. But spelling really well – especially in today’s hypercompetitive bee culture – requires not just memorization of words, but also roots and language patterns. The toughest words stick in the minds of the best spellers reliably, waiting in dormancy until called up by the pronouncer, ready for the speller to recite. And if a word is unfamiliar, those roots and language patterns must be pulled up and applied so the word may be intelligently parsed – and hopefully spelled correctly.

Vocabulary is arguably a more fiendish creature than spelling. It is one thing to recite the letters of a word according to patterns and rules and one’s own memory. It is another thing to write or say such a word in its proper context. And to do so is a more difficult skill to conquer.

I imagine spelling a word correctly similar to dabbing a dot of the right color in a picture. Vocabulary is the art of placing that dot in just the right place so that it flows with the dots surrounding it to create a pointillistic masterpiece like A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. Placed wrongly, it distorts the picture and makes us question the abilities of the painter – or in this case, the scholar. Placed correctly, it seamlessly contributes to the picture and enables us to marvel at the wisdom of the user. Spelling is a technical skill, akin to math. Mastering vocabulary is a more fluid art, requiring finesse and an eye and ear for subtlety.

The Learner’s Dictionary

The official source of words for every major spelling bee based in the United States is either Webster’s Third New International Dictionary or its cyber counterpart, Merriam Webster Unabridged Online. For learning spelling, this is as it should be. For learning vocabulary – at least for most spellers – not so much. I regularly advise my students instead to study from Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary to master vocabulary.

Why use the Learner’s Dictionary for vocabulary, and not Merriam Webster Unabridged? First, it’s a guarantee that every word in the Learner’s Dictionary is in the MWU, so there’s no worry about studying a word that won’t be in the dictionary. But more importantly, the Learner’s Dictionary has definitions that are easier to understand without being inaccurate. Take, for example, the word catkin. Originally part of Spell It, this word has wildly divergent definitions depending on what source you refer to. Let’s look at the difference:

  • Merriam-Webster Unabridged: botany:  an elongated, often pendulous inflorescence bearing scaly bracts and numerous, typically apetalous, unisexual flowers
  • Learner’s Dictionary: a bunch of flowers that grow in close rows on the branches of trees (such as willows or birches)

Both definitions are accurate. But the MWU definition, for most beginner spellers, is too confusing. (What is a pendulous inflorescence? What are scaly bracts? Why are we even bringing the concept of sex into this definition?) If you are a botanist, yes, this definition works. But if you are trying to learn what this easily-spelled word means for the first time, it’s nearly useless. In contrast, the definition in the Learner’s Dictionary makes much more sense. (Besides, the definition offers up examples of where to find catkins…and you can picture them easily once you make a connection to a pussy willow.)

An argument against the Learner’s Dictionary

Some parents and students might insist that the Learner’s Dictionary is just too simple to learn from, and that the best spellers should be challenged by learning the definitions from the MWU. Perhaps they consider the Learner’s Dictionary too childish. I would disagree. Spellers learning vocabulary from the MWU would be akin to having a child learning from the Bible by only reading the King James Bible, ignoring simpler, more approachable Bibles. Unquestionably, the King James Bible is one of the greatest works of literature in the English language. It just takes a lot of skill to understand it. Other Bibles strive to be more cogent while still being accurate. They help students learn more easily, making Christian theology and religion more readily understood. Such is the valuable role of the Learner’s Dictionary in teaching vocabulary.

Of course, some words may be so difficult that they don’t appear in the Learner’s Dictionary. In 2013, 11 of the 12 vocabulary words in the preliminary test could be found in the Learner’s Dictionary. (The lone holdout – Anglophile – is fairly easy to decipher from roots.) In comparison, in 2019, only 6 of 12 words were found in the Learner’s Dictionary. Such is the skill of top spellers nowadays. As spellers conquer not only orthography but correct usage, they should absolutely graduate to the MWU for vocabulary. But to be sure, it is best to place the horse before the cart. Start vocabulary study using the Learner’s Dictionary as a primary resource.

Photo credit: “DSCN4155” by keepps.