Monday, May 27, 2013

A Brand New Way To Flunk The Spelling Bee

Tomorrow begins the 2013 National Spelling Bee. The televised portion- the part you're familiar with, where every speller takes a turn and it's single-elimination- that doesn't begin quite yet. That will come on Thursday. Tomorrow begins the three-day preliminaries, with a computer test of the 281 regional qualifiers

This year's roster is here. As usual, Wisconsin only sends a single speller; the qualifier through the Wisconsin State Journal acts as a de facto state championship. This year, the qualifier is Aisha Khan of Madison's Spring Harbor Middle School, one of the bee's usual glut of spellers with origins in India. India itself isn't sending anyone, but there are qualifiers from American Samoa, the Bahamas, Canada's two qualifiers, China's two qualifiers, "Europe" (who sends Anuk Dayaprema of Vicenza, Italy), Ghana, Guam, Jamaica, Japan, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and the US Virgin Islands. Anyone who speaks English is eligible.

The way the preliminaries work has changed this year. Last year, the Round 1 computerized test gave you 50 words to spell, of which only 25 were actually scored. This year, you're expected to start knowing definitions, so as to discourage rote learning. It's no longer enough to just be able to recite a bunch of letters; now you have to know what those letters mean as well. So in the test this year, you're first given 24 words to spell, of which 12 count. Then you are given 24 multiple-choice definition questions, of which, again, only 12 count. Each scored question answered correctly gets you one point. You are then given a single definition question which is scored as if it were in Round 2, and then another scored as Round 3. What that means is that those are worth three points apiece. Your optimal total here is 30 points.

The actual Round 2 and Round 3 take place on Wednesday: each of the 281 spellers gets up and spells one word per round, again each worth three points. These words all come from a booklet called Spell It! that Scripps-Howard has previously distributed. Miss your word in either round, and you get the bell and get the hook. This will be viewable on ESPN3, ESPN's online coverage, beginning at 8 AM Eastern.

After that's all accomplished, a maximum of 50 spellers advance. It's top 50 minus ties: if 49th, 50th and 51st have tied after the prelims, all three of them are bounced.

About two hours after the cut, the semifinals start with another computer test on Wednesday night. It works like the preliminaries, except the 12 nonscoring words and vocabulary definitions are removed, leaving 12 words and 12 definitions that are all scored at a point a pop. A Round 5 and Round 6 vocabulary question is added to the computer test, again worth three points each. On Thursday afternoon, starting at 2 PM Eastern on ESPN2, we go down the line on the microphone again for the Round 5 and Round 6 three-point words. And as always, miss a word on the microphone and you go home.

After that's done, the total scores from all six rounds are used to determine the finalists. The field is cut to a maximum of 12 and a minimum of 9. (If it happens that the field is going to be cut to a smaller field than that, the bee officials will get together and figure out if they can accommodate the next tier of spellers. If so, those spellers advance as well; if not, they just plow on shorthanded.)

From there, we finally get to the spelling gauntlet you know and love at 8 PM Eastern on ESPN.

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