OXON HILL, Md. — The Scripps National Spelling Bee suffered a body blow when eight kids ended up co-champions because they were simply too accomplished to stumble over any of the words Scripps threw at them.
That doesn’t mean it’s irretrievably broken.
Even some critics who thought the words Thursday night were insultingly easy are optimistic that the bee can recover and produce a single champion next year and for many years to come.
“As spellers evolve, the bee does, too,” 17-year-old former speller Grace Walters said Friday. She’s the personal coach to last year’s winner and three of this year’s champions. “The National Spelling Bee as we know it right now might be broken, but the bee is going to evolve. I think it can continue. … I’ll be really sad if it doesn’t!”
The extraordinary 2019 bee featured strong contestants, a field as deep and well-prepared as any in the event’s 94-year history.
Of the 16 spellers in last year’s prime-time finals, 10 made it back into this year’s top 50. Seven made the top 16 for the second straight year, including two who advanced to ESPN’s prime-time telecast three years in a row. (Both of those three-timers, Erin Howard and Shruthika Padhy, were among the eight champions.)
“It’s still overwhelming to look at the aptitude of these kids at one time,” said Mirle Shivashankar, father of 2009 champion Kavya Shivashankar and 2015 co-champion Vanya Shivashankar. “We used to see these kinds of kids before, one at a time, two at a time. Tossing them in a group like that is just hard to digest for me.”
From the beginning of the finals Thursday morning, Scripps was playing catch-up. Ten spellers exited in the first round of finals, more or less an expected number. But in the next round, only six misspelled. Just five dropped out in the round after that. The words had to get much tougher just to whittle the field to 16 kids in the span of 5½ hours.
That’s when bee organizers huddled for an emergency strategy meeting, where they hatched a contingency plan to end the bee with more than the maximum of three co-champions allowed under the rules.
“The ability of those spellers was simply greater in aggregate than we prepared for,” said Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster who consults with Scripps but has no formal role in word selection or bee planning.
“They were structurally prepared for kind of a duel between two spellers. What they recognized was they didn’t have enough words of that very high level, of the most difficult level. … They were all difficult words, but not the most difficult words. They had already gone through them.”
But why did that happen? According to the former spellers-turned-professional coaches who helped this year’s kids crack the bee’s code, the Scripps word list has tendencies that are easy to figure out. SpellPundit, an online study guide started by two ex-spellers and used by all but two of the eventual champions, offers a full refund of its $600 annual subscription fee if Scripps uses a word that isn’t included in its database.
Among the weaknesses that spellers exploited: Scripps frequently repeats words from past bees.
“The spelling bee recycles words, so it’s really predictable. There’s really no reason to recycle words,” said Scott Remer, the 2008 fourth-place finisher and author of “Words of Wisdom: Keys to Success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.”
“One thing they’re probably going to want to do is start to branch out from the traditional, mainstay, bread-and-butter words that they’ve been asking,” he said.
The 25-year-old Remer, who coached two of this year’s champions, said too many words had familiar roots and patterns or were simply spelled phonetically, albeit in languages other than English.
“‘Seitan,’ that’s just very standard Japanese patterns,” Remer said. “A word like ‘chapon’ is pure, standard, very easy French. Just abides by all the French rules and it’s six letters long.”
Siyona Mishra, who finished ninth in 2015 and coached this year’s co-champion Christopher Serrao, said tricking up the word list is easy.
“You could go to geographical words, names of tribes of people,” the 15-year-old Siyona said. “Genus names, some slangy words are also a bit more difficult, not in the sense that they’re hard to spell but they’re a lot more unpredictable. They don’t follow language patterns.”
Another consideration is the entertainment factor. Scripps tends to use words that sound fun, fascinating or intimidating to amateur spellers watching at home. A tougher Scripps bee might be drier and heavier on scientific jargon.
“It might mean resorting to words,” Grace said, “that aren’t as interesting to a national television audience.”
As in any contest, if the rules change, the competitors will adapt. Online tools allow spellers to study more efficiently, freeing them up to learn even more. Sokolowski saw something in this year’s bee he’s never seen before. It came from Simone Kaplan, the last speller eliminated before the eight who made history.
“The girl quoting the definitions before (pronouncer Jacques) Bailly said them stated the usage note from our unabridged dictionary verbatim. … It’s a very specific kind of writing that we do. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this 13-year-old girl is quoting our dictionary back to us,'” Sokolowski said. “These spellers as a group simply were unusually gifted. They may indicate that we have entered a new era of competition.”