After a disheartening cancellation in 2020 and a largely virtual event last year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is back in person. To be sure, 2020 and 2021 weren’t lost years: online spelling bees, including my own, blossomed, and 2021 saw the crowning of the first African American champion. But this year’s return to a semblance of normalcy – with LeVar Burton emceeing the event! – will undoubtedly delight logophiles and Trekkies alike.
The Bee has become an American cultural institution. Watching elementary and middle-school students wrestle with words under high pressure and strict time limits – a mere 90 seconds to ask questions and an additional 30 seconds to spell – is captivating. The Bee rewards discipline, feats of memory and linguistic mastery: what you see onstage is the culmination of hundreds of hours of work, with spellers’ parents, and tutors like me, playing supporting roles. The approximately 30 words that a champion speller receives onstage are the surface of a deep reservoir of knowledge. That a competition which unapologetically champions learning has thrived for more than 90 years should be cause for celebration.
But numerous changes threaten the Bee’s future. Traditionally, regional bees have been sponsored by local newspapers and community organizations, but the demise of print publications has left large swathes of the US without regional competitions. The National Spelling Bee has held “at-large” bees to close the gap, but these bees are too few to compensate. Among remaining regional spelling bees, to economize and assuage lingering Covid fears, organizers have shifted to virtual bees, which are susceptible to cheating. Some regions have even replaced live competition with computerized tests, which are relatively easy to game. These changes have weakened the national field.
The pool has shrunk drastically. In 2019, 535 spellers competed. This year, there will be 234 spellers – a slight rebound from last year’s pool of 209. The main reason is that Scripps has eliminated the RSVBee invitational program, an arrangement which allowed spellers from competitive states like New Jersey, California, and Texas who demonstrated previous orthographic accomplishment and paid a fee, to attend nationals despite not having won restrictive regional bees. In previous years, many strong spellers, including champions, were RSVBee participants. The upshot of suspending RSVBee is that the field is substantially weaker. As a tutor, I can attest that some of my best tutees – many of whom would otherwise have been contenders for the finals – won’t be attending nationals because of RSVBee’s hiatus.
Scripps’ decision to end RSVBee probably stems from the desire to simplify Bee logistics as Covid drags on and an attempt to neutralize economic inequality and “pay-to-play” accusations. But regional inequality is equally unfair: a child in Wyoming will qualify for nationals far more easily than a New Yorker. Financially, Scripps would regain a major income source by reinstating RSVBee and could use that income to offer financial aid or fund regional bees in bee-less areas. It might allow the Bee to return to ESPN, which would likely bolster viewership.
Other rules have been changed in ways that affect the Bee’s nature. Sudden-death onstage vocabulary rounds, where spellers must select a word’s definition within 30 seconds, have turned the bee into a “spelling-and-vocabulary bee.” Though I’m all in favor of “advanc[ing] … word knowledge and literacy” (the rationale Scripps offers), such a goal can be achieved as Scripps has previously done: with a half-vocabulary preliminaries test. Otherwise, one risks having situations (as in fact occurred last year) where kids are eliminated on a word like “leeward”, which is rarefied enough that it doesn’t feel fair to expect a seventh-grader to know it or work it out using word roots.
Another rule change is the introduction of a 90-second spell-off at the end of the competition. If judges invoke a spell-off, then the remaining finalists must spell as many words as possible from a list. The speller who spells the most words correctly wins. This feels like a gimmick lifted from a game show. Fundamentally, the spelling bee’s unique drama derives from the high stakes of each word: it’s all-or-nothing, single-elimination. By not penalizing a missed word onstage, the spell-off destroys this aspect of the competition altogether.
These changes are an effort to avoid the eight-way tie which occurred in 2019. But as the author of a 446-page textbook which contains many thousands of challenging words, I can confidently assert that the solution is simply to pick harder words. I applaud J Michael Durnill, the Bee’s new executive director, for his efforts to increase diversity, and I have immense respect for the Bee organizers’ Laocoon efforts. To pull off such a vast competition year after year, even amidst a pandemic, is awe-inspiring. I have fond memories of my time as a speller and would venture to say that I am among the Bee’s biggest fans. I hope that, by reinstating RSVBee (which Scripps itself has stated is a matter of fairness), reconsidering the vocabulary and spell-off components of the competition, and taking steps to reinvigorate the world of regional bees, Scripps will ensure that the National Spelling Bee is buzzworthy for many years to come.