Ben Zimmer reports that the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year will test contestants’ knowledge of definitions along with spelling; he quotes Paige Kimble as follows:
By making definitions more central, Scripps is pushing back against perceptions that getting to the nationals involves nothing more than prodigious feats of word memorization. Truth be told, top spellers do need to appreciate meaning, to break down a word into classical roots or tease apart the spelling of similar-sounding words. But their mastery of spelling still comes off as little more than a stunt, like memorizing a deck of cards. That plays into the popular view of the bee as a nail-biting spectacle.
It’s offstage for now, but Ben says “If all goes well, we could see vocabulary questions in the televised portion of the nationals in coming years.” I hope so; much as I love spelling bees, the “stunt” aspect has always bothered me a bit, and this seems like a good addition.