Spelling Bee rules, explained: Number of words, rounds & how a spell-off works in 2023

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Scripps National Spelling Bee
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The Scripps National Spelling Bee is here, representing one of the most vigorous — and prestigious — academic competitions in America.

LIVE: Complete results from 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Unsurprisingly, a competition as renowned as the national spelling bee comes with several rules. There's more to it than simply spelling words correctly, as contestants traverse several rounds of competition en route to the finale.

The rules certainly make for an exciting competition, wherein only the top spellers in the country remain to claim the championship. For those unfamiliar with the rules or who are otherwise interested in learning more about the competition, The Sporting News has everything you need to know about how they work.

With that, here are the rules for competition for the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee, including eligible entrants, word usage, competition format and championship scenarios:

MORE: Who won the Spelling Bee in 2022? Texas eighth-grader captures Scripps crown

Scripps National Spelling Bee rules 2023

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has a comprehensive list of rules for the 2023 competition, but generally speaking, the rules are as follows:

  • Eligible spellers must not have passed beyond the eighth grade or an international equivalent on or before Aug. 31 2023, nor reached their 15th birthday.
  • The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary is the official dictionary of the competition, and is the source of words and word information for all rounds of competition.
  • A speller is immediately eliminated from the competition and will not advance to the next round or segment or a round — excepting certain situations in the finals — if they provide an incorrect answer.
  • Each segment of competition will consist of at least one round each of spelling and multiple-choice word meaning.
  • Spelling rounds have 90-second time limits for spellers; multiple-choice word meaning rounds have 30-second time limits.

How many words are in the Spelling Bee?

The Spelling Bee offers the "Word of Champions," which the competition describes as "the key study resource for students participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee program." It has 4,000 words presented in three difficulty levels, including 450 words that make up the School Spelling Bee Study List.

How many rounds are in the Spelling Bee?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is separated into four segments: preliminaries, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. Each segment will have at least one round of competition, with only the preliminaries having a predetermined number of rounds (three).

The preliminaries consist of a round of spelling, followed by a round of multiple-choice word meaning, back to a round of spelling competition. Any speller who correctly spells a word in Round 1 will automatically move to Round 2; if they choose the correct word therein, they will immediately move to Round 3.

The quarterfinal, semifinal and final segments follow the same pattern of competition, but continue until spelling bee officials declare the end of the competition for each segment. Each round of each segment will consist of spellers who were not eliminated in the prior round.

How does a spell-off work in the Spelling bee?

The Spelling Bee has a special spell-off round in the event a champion can't be determined in a set time limit. It occurs in the final round, if one of the following conditions are met:

  • No champion has been declared before the 1 hour 55 minute mark of the broadcast window and a championship round is not about to begin;
  • A finals round ends before the 1 hour 55 minute mark in the broadcast window and there is no way to complete a subsequent round by the 1 hour 55 minute mark (allowing 90 seconds per speller);
  • A potential winning word is misspelled at or after the 1 hour 55 minute mark in the broadcast window.

In a spell-off, all non-eliminated spellers are given 90 seconds to spell a series of words from a separate list of spell-of words. Spellers cannot pass or skip words and must make an honest attempt at spelling each word. Only one speller is active at a time, whereas the other spellers are sequestered. Each speller will be given the exact same words in the exact same order.

The speller who spelled the most words correctly during their turn is declared champion. If a single champion doesn't emerge, then judges will attempt to break the tie by declaring a champion based on highest percentage of words spelled correctly. If a champion still does not emerge, then the remaining spellers who earn the same top score and have the same percentage are declared co-champions.

How to win the Spelling Bee

Assuming the Spelling Bee does not go to a spell-off, a champion will be declared under the "End-of-Bee Procedure." If all spellers in a Finals round misspell or answer incorrectly, they all remain in competition and a new round begins, starting in their original order from the previous round.

If only one speller spells or answers correctly in a given round, then a new round — always a spelling round — begins. The speller is given a word on the Championship Word List. If they correctly spell their word, they are declared champion. If they misspell it, a new round begins with all the spellers from the previous round, again in their original order.

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Zac Al-Khateeb is a content producer for The Sporting News.