The biggest shock of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee took place Thursday afternoon, as a widely regarded favourite abruptly exited the tournament — but not because she misspelled a word.
12-year-old Vanya Shivashankar was eliminated due to a controversial rule introduced last year that scores spellers on computerized spelling and vocabulary tests taken before the tournament begins. While a separate written spelling test had been a part of the Spelling Bee since 2002, last year was the first time entrants were also tested on vocabulary, which now counts for 50% of a speller’s overall score.
Starting this year, only 12 spellers can make it to the final round. If more than 12 contestants spell all of their words correctly, the judges eliminate the spellers with the lowest scores on the written tests. Shivashankar likely recieved a comparatively low score on the vocabulary test to prevent her from moving forward.
Here are some sample vocabulary multiple choice questions, which ask spellers to choose the best definition for words such as “heiress” and “refulgent.”
A three time finalist, Shivashankar was considered to be one of the top spellers in the tournament going into today’s semifinals. Her sister, Kavya, won the Bee in 2009.
One of 46 spellers still in the competition on Thursday, Shivashankar had correctly spelled both of her words during the semifinal round — “elepidote” (lacking small, scurfy scales) and “echinite” (fossil sea urchin) — before she was ended her tournament run. Many Spelling Bee watchers and fans were left stunned:
vanya got robbed. this ain’t right.
— Rembert Browne (@rembert) May 29, 2014
Upset at the Bee: Vanya Shivashankar, the Rafa Nadal of the competition, is out.
— Alex Abad-Santos (@alex_abads) May 29, 2014
More than half of the 31 spellers who made it through the semifinals without error were sent home because of their computer scores, leaving 12 finalists in the competition. Only one of the finalists — 14-year-old Sriram Hathwar, last year’s third-place finisher — has previously competed in the tournament finals.
Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, defended the new rules when they were announced last year in a statement:
This is a significant change in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but also a natural one. It represents a deepening of the Bee’s commitment to its purpose: to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee finals air tonight on ESPN.
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