Scripps Spelling Bee adds ‘Tiebreaker Test’

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The 291 elementary- and middle-schoolers competing in the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee gather at a convention center in Oxon Hill, Md., on Tuesday, May 30 to take the bee's nerve-racking written test. The test goes a long way toward determining who will be among the 50 or so spellers to advance beyond the preliminary rounds. (AP Photo/Ben Nuckols)

Jon Allsop

BEN NUCKOLS
Associated Press

OXON HILL, Md. — Shaheer Imam never thought it would take so long to get back to the National Spelling Bee.

The 13-year-old from Catonsville, Maryland, made his first appearance in 2012. Shaheer was just 8, and he spelled “capricious” and “quinzaine” correctly.

This year, he finally made it back. On Tuesday morning, he took his place among 290 other spellers at a convention center outside Washington as the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee began with a written spelling and vocabulary test.

In a year when the bee is welcoming its youngest-ever participant, 6-year-old Edith Fuller, Shaheer is setting a more unusual record, for the longest gap — five years — between appearances. His frustrating wait shows just how tough it can be to emerge from a field of 11 million spellers in the U.S. and abroad.

Much has changed since Shaheer’s previous appearance in 2012. The bee added vocabulary to the written test, forcing spellers for the first time to learn the definitions of words, although the top spellers had been doing that for years. Then the secretive Scripps word team started struggling to dig out words tough enough to identify a single champion. The bee has ended in a tie for three consecutive years.

Last year, the bee made the championship rounds longer and the words tougher, but it still ended with two spellers sharing the title. This year, the bee added a second written spelling and vocabulary test that the remaining spellers will take before the prime-time finals on Thursday. The “Tiebreaker Test” results will be used only if necessary to break a tie.

Not everyone is happy about the latest change.

“It might need a couple tweaks. I don’t think there should be vocabulary in it,” said Jairam Hathwar, last year’s co-champion.

Competitors were asked to spell 12 words and identify the definitions of 14 more  Tuesday. All 291 spellers will get an opportunity to spell two words on stage Wednesday, and those who miss will be eliminated. Among those who survive, the written test will determine who advances to the final day of competition Thursday.

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