The Youths Have Outsmarted the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Author: ASHLEY FETTERS

Date: MAY 31, 2019

To read the full article, please go to: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/05/the-scripps-national-spelling-bee-how-8-kids-won/590782/

Last night, at the end of the final round of the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, a record eight students were still standing, having calmly rattled off the correct spellings of words like psammoserechoumoellier, and Logudorese. The eight—Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, and Rohan Raja—now share the title of co-champion. It’s a confusing result in a competition that usually crowns one individual champion, or—as has been common recently but rare historically—two.

Scott Remer, the author of Words of Wisdom: Keys to Success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the spelling coach of two of last night’s co-champions, Padhy and Serrao, explained to me just after the competition came to a close why the final round resulted in an eight-way tie. According to Remer, preposterous as it may seem to the average spellers among us, last night’s words were simply too easy, and America’s top spellers are just too good.

It should not be underestimated, Remer said, how truly wild an eight-co-champion result for the National Spelling Bee is. “Ordinarily, people get out,” Remer said with a laugh. “Ordinarily, people misspell words, sooner or later down the line initiating a round where you only have three [or fewer] spellers remaining.” At which point the rules change: In the first round in which only one speller has spelled a word correctly, that speller must also spell the nextword on the official word list correctly to win the bee. But before last night’s 92nd annual bee could even get there, Remer said, “the kids exhausted the word list” while eight kids remained in the competition.

There are a few possible reasons that happened, Remer said. For one, the students’ preparation methods have gotten much more sophisticated in recent years: Most of the participating kids now have spelling coaches, and Remer’s book, published in 2010, is now in its fifth edition, pointing to its widespread adoption as a preparation tool. Remer also credits the computer software SpellPundit, which drills kids on past editions of the National Spelling Bee word lists. The program launched in 2018 and was used by that year’s bee champion, Karthik Nemmani, as a study method. “So many spellers use that now, and that certainly has increased their preparation level,” he says. This morning, SpellPundit’s website is boasting that six of the eight co-champions of this year’s bee used SpellPundit to study.

Another factor in the students’ resounding defeat of the dictionary may have been the words given in the final round, which both Remer and the past co-champion Gokul Venkatachalam found to be surprisingly easy (despite what the general public might think). For one thing, Venkatachalam, who won in 2014, wrote to me in a text message this morning that bougainvillea and pendeloque have been used in previous bees, so spellers who used past word lists to study already knew them well.

And for another, “Words such as ‘auslaut’ and ‘erysipelas’ and ‘pendeloque’ all follow basic language patterns for their respective languages or contain roots,” Venkatachalam pointed out. “As a whole, I consider these kinds of words to be much easier than words with unknown origins and ambiguous definitions.”

Remer agrees. Some of the hardest words in the final round, he noted, were Moazagotlsphaeriid, and tettigoniidTettigoniid, the name of a particular species of grasshopper, derives from an unusual root—the Latin word Tettigonia, for a species of insect, derives from the Greek word for “cicada”—which most spellers don’t know, Remer said. Venkatachalam arrived at the same conclusion: “I thought ‘tettigoniid’ was one of the most difficult words asked throughout the whole competition,” he texted me, “as figuring out the prefix of ‘tetti-’ is downright impossible without prior knowledge of … genus names.” (A number of contestants misspelled science-related words during last night’s contest, such as flaser, an “irregular usually streaked lens of granular texture found in a micaceous interstitial mass of rock and produced by shearing and pressure during metamorphism”; hieracium, which is “any plant of a very large and nearly cosmopolitan genus of weedy perennial herbs having simple often basal leaves and heads of yellow or reddish orange ray flowers”; and Chama, which is “a member of a genus of eulamellibranchiate bivalve mollusks of warm or tropical seas having fixed massive irregular inequivalve shells and comprising the rock oysters and extinct related forms.” As Remer points out, some science-adjacent terms can be difficult for spellers to pin down because they are eponymous—built on the names of specific people or places.)

Remer likes to tell the students he coaches that there’s a subtle but crucial difference between a good speller and a great speller. “A good speller has a lot of words stored up in their memory bank, and can retrieve them; a good speller has memorized a lot of words, essentially,” Remer said. Meanwhile, “a great speller not only knows a lot of words, but can basically spell even words they haven’t practiced before—because they understand the logic and the languages, and they’re able to apply word roots to novel words that they run across.”

In other words, being able to deconstruct and reverse-engineer words based on their sound, meaning, and language of origin, Remer said, is basically “the art of spelling.” The odd reality that the National Spelling Bee now faces is that an unprecedented number of young scholars have begun to master it.

Scott Remer