For viewers of last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, one of the most surprising results came courtesy of a test nobody saw.
Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe was one of the stars of the show, heavily promoted in ESPN’s coverage. Her older sister, Kavya, won the bee in 2009, and the smiling, telegenic Vanya was participating for the fourth time, coming off a fifth-place finish in 2013.
Vanya breezed through the preliminary rounds and spelled both words correctly in the semifinals. But when the finalists were announced – factoring in scores from a computerized spelling and vocabulary test – Vanya was eliminated. ESPN’s cameras cut to her, but she didn’t show much emotion.
Two years after vocabulary became part of the bee for the first time, the integration of the test remains a work in progress. While participants and bee officials say it’s made the competition fairer – everyone is tested on the same words – it has taken some of the drama away from the semifinal rounds.
Vanya still loves the bee, but she misses the simplicity of the old format, when the semifinals would continue for as necessary for the field to be narrowed to about 10 finalists.
“Lots of people would like to see people going up and spelling words and seeing how they used to do it, just to spell until everyone drops,” Vanya said. “I’m fine with anything, but spelling till you drop is kind of cool.”
Vanya wasn’t entirely surprised she didn’t make the finals last year. She knew her test score could have been better. Spellers were given their own scores, but neither they nor the audience knew how they stacked up.
That’ll change this year as bee officials continue to tweak the format. The test scores will be announced and spellers will be ranked heading into the semifinals. The bee starts on Wednesday.
Tim Weinkauf, the lead producer of ESPN’s coverage, said he’ll take advantage of that change by showing golf-style leaderboards and highlighting the spellers who can work their way into the finals if someone ahead of them falters.
“I think it allows for more dramatic moments because there will be those certain kids that are on the bubble,” Weinkauf said.
One important thing that hasn’t changed: If you miss a word on stage, the bell rings and you’re out.
There were drawbacks to what Vanya calls the “spelling till you drop” approach. In 2010, the semifinals were stopped in the middle of a round because too many spellers got words wrong and there was a chance of having too few finalists to fill the 2-hour broadcast window.
The bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble, heard plenty of complaints that ending the semifinals that way was unfair.
“We’ve certainly had some white-knuckle moments,” Kimble said. “You just don’t know when you go into a round how the kids are going to do.”
The vocabulary test, Kimble said, plays a much more important role than making the semifinals more predictable.
“I think it’s making the most profound impact exactly where we wanted it to, and that is at the school and local spelling bee levels,” she said. “We’re finding that teachers and students and parents are embracing the acquisition of vocabulary along with the memorization of words for a spelling bee.”
Kimble also said she didn’t think the vocabulary test has ultimately had much influence over who advances to the finals.
The 285 participants in this year’s National Spelling Bee have already proved they’re better spellers than 11 million other kids – and to spell at that level, it’s essential to at least have some idea what the words mean. The best spellers can figure out words they’ve never heard before by understanding Greek and Latin roots and languages of origin.
In addition to 13-year-old Vanya, this year’s bee has two other siblings of past winners – 12-year-old Jairam Hathwar, whose brother, Sriram, was a co-champion last year; and 11-year-old Srinath Mahankali, whose brother, Arvind, was a popular winner in 2013.
Jairam and Srinath will get another shot if they fall short. Vanya is in eighth grade, which means this is her last chance. She insists she doesn’t feel any added pressure.
“I’ve been having the time of my life,” she said. “This is something that not many people get to do and I’ve been able to do it so many years, so definitely no regrets.”