OXON HILL, Md. – The sign outside the waiting room read: "Preliminaries Test, Quiet Please." Spellers emerged one by one, having taken the first vocabulary test in the history of the National Spelling Bee. They were greeted with pats on shoulders from parents and whispers of "How'd it go?"
One of the favorites thought he did OK, although he was grateful for a trick everyone learns at school: the process of elimination.
"It was good that they gave multiple choice, so that you could eliminate incorrect answers," said 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali of New York. "I had to guess at one or two in vocabulary."
The 86th edition of the Scripps National Spelling Bee took on new meaning Tuesday -- or rather, lots of meanings -- with organizers having decreed that the precocious youngsters need to prove they know the definitions of some of those tough words. The 281 competitors took a 45-minute computer test that probed their knowledge of spelling and vocabulary, with the results to be combined with Wednesday's on-stage round to determine which spellers advance to the semifinals Thursday.
The consensus from the spellers: Good idea, but they wished they had known about it sooner.
"I think everybody wasn't expecting it, because it was something you weren't thinking they were going to put in," said 12-year-old Mary Elizabeth Horton from West Melbourne, Fla. "But it definitely changes everything."
Organizers announced the addition of the vocabulary test seven weeks ago, saying it reinforces the bee's mission to encourage students to broaden their knowledge of the English language. They waited until all the qualifying bees had been completed so that all the spellers would be on equal footing in their preparation.
For Arvind, who finished third last year, it meant a sudden change in strategy.
"Before they announced the vocabulary, I paid attention to the definitions but I didn't focus too much," Arvind said. "But then after they announced it, I occasionally had my dad quiz me on vocabulary words, and I studied the definitions once in a while."
Still, Arvind said he was confident his score would be enough for him to advance.
"I think it's not too bad of a change, actually," he said. "The vocabulary words, they're pretty easy to someone who studies well enough."
There will be another vocabulary test for those who make it to the semifinals, but Thursday night's finals will look the same as always -- with spellers taking turns tackling incredibly difficult words under the bright lights of prime-time television until only a champion remains. The winner takes home more than $30,000 in cash and prizes.
The environment Tuesday morning was more low-key, but the tension and pressure were still evident. The test took place inside a large hotel ballroom, where about 50 spellers at a time sat at a long, rectangular table staring at computer screens.
The scoring system has the complexity usually associated with something like Olympic gymnastics: 24 words to spell and 24 words to define, although only 12 of each count toward the total score. There was also a pair of extra vocabulary words worth three points each. The spellers were asked to choose among four possible definitions for each vocabulary word.
Organizers might tinker the format in future years, but there's little doubt that the vocabulary test is here to stay.
"I really like the intended purpose, which is to emphasize vocabulary," said 1999 champion Nupur Lala, who was featured in the documentary "Spellbound." "I think one thing that has happened in recent years is that the words have become incredibly difficult, and I think the level of competition has reached such an apex at this point that they need something else to differentiate spellers -- and still keep the bee an educational exercise."