National Spelling Bee Adds Context

Sure, you can take an educated guess – after asking for the origin and to hear it in a sentence – at spelling “succedaneum,” but do you know its meaning? If you’re competing in this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, you’ll have to. (It means “A substitute, replacement for something else, particularly of a medicine used in place of another.” However, you probably won’t have to know that word in particular – it was the word that won Sean Conley the championship in 2001.)

Winning the National Spelling Bee, like Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego, did in 2012, will get harder. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

The 86th bee will be held this May 28, but unlike the previous 85 installments, context is key. Never before have competitors needed to know a word’s meaning. Being smart kids, I’m sure plenty of them already knew. But this year, qualification for the semifinals and championship finals includes a computer-based test with questions on the definition of vocabulary words. In these days where students are increasingly asked to simply regurgitate information, this adds a welcome bit of perspective. See some sample questions here.

I applaud this move. Spelling well is one thing, using it in the correct context is another. If I never hear someone say “infer” when they mean “imply” again, it’ll be too soon. But, as someone who’s been known to double- and triple-check herself with spell check, my proverbial hat’s off to this year’s contestants.