Spelling whizzes across the nation learned Tuesday that they will have to know the definitions of some of those tough words they’ve been memorizing in the dictionary. For the first time, multiple-choice vocabulary tests will be added to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Brian Dunn, a coordinator of the South Jersey Spelling Bee, said the new rule “changes the game.”

“As a teacher, I like the idea of adding more language arts to the spelling bee,” said Dunn, a fifth-grade teacher at Roland Rogers Elementary School in Galloway Township. “As a coordinator of the bee, I was a bit surprised about the timing of this announcement.”

The changes will make it easier to nail down the nine to 12 competitors who make it to the final round, which will look the same as it has for years to prime-time TV viewers, with spellers taking turns until only the champion has avoided the familiar doomsday bell. The changes do add a wrinkle to the televised semifinals, however, as even the best onstage spellers could find themselves eliminated from the finals if they perform poorly on the multiple-choice test.

“I’m on an email group and we talk about spelling, and a lot of the returning spellers were really, like, shocked, and they were surprised about the change that’s happened,” said Mirle Shivashankar, whose daughter, 11-year-old Vanya, is among the favorites after finishing tied for 10th last year. “But it’s going to be really cool and fun to see how the bee will be because it will be spelling and vocabulary.”

Vocabulary has been a regular part of the bee during its 87-year history, but it’s always been the spellers asking for the definition to help them spell the word.

Now that changes, with the spellers taking a computer test that looks like something from the SAT. A sample question provided by the Spelling Bee reads as follows:

“Something described as refulgent is: a) tending to move toward one point, b) demanding immediate action, c) rising from an inferior state, d) giving out a bright light.”

The correct answer is d.

The vocabulary tests will take place in private rooms and will not be part of the television broadcasts, but they will count for 50 percent of the point totals that determine the semifinalists and finalists.

The 281 spellers in this year’s bee now have less than two months to change their study habits ahead of the May 28-30 competition near Washington.

Ebose Eigbe, 13, of Galloway Township, will be one of the students who must adjust after winning the South Jersey Spelling Bee in March. He also competed last year at the international competition, but fell short of the semifinals.

Dunn said some students train year-round for this event, some of whom are purely skilled at memorizing spellings. He said this change clearly puts those students at a disadvantage.

“I wouldn’t even know how to tell people to prepare at this point,” Dunn said.

Paige Kimble, executive director of the competition, said the changes were driven by the desire to reinforce the competition’s purpose — to encourage students to improve their spelling and broaden their knowledge of the language.

“What we know with the championship-level spellers is that they think of their achievement in terms of spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin,” Kimble said.

The national bee waited until all the regional bees were completed to make the announcement so that everyone would start on equal footing. The national bee will supply materials and suggestions to help local bees introduce a vocabulary test next year, Kimble said.

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