In between the usual oral spelling rounds, “word meaning,” the new vocabulary portion, will ask the speller to answer a multiple-choice question during the second round of each competition level all the way to the finals.
Also new is the “spell-off”: For the July 8 finals, officials can now trigger a lightning round to rule out the possibility of a tie.
If, as time is running down in the last round, there is still no winner, all spellers left standing will be given 90 seconds to spell as many words as possible from a prepared list. Whoever spells the most words correctly wins the title.
J. Michael Durnil, who stepped in as the bee’s executive director in March, is overseeing the changes to the 96-year-old competition.
“The Bee’s competition format this year – inspired by proactive safety measures as the pandemic evolves – has allowed us to introduce new competition elements, aligned with our regular program review to ensure the competition continues to mature in a way that appropriately challenges the most accomplished spellers in the country,” Durnil said in a press release. “The spell-off, if activated, promises to be a gripping moment for both the spellers onstage during the finals and audiences on the edges of their seats at home.”
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This new feature will almost certainly prevent repeats of past bees, in which reigning spellers had to share their glory. In 2019, a record-busting eight contestants were named co-champions after enduring 20 spelling rounds. All three bees from 2014 through 2016 also ended in a tie.