Canceled Spelling Bee? Not if These Siblings Can Help It

Shobha and Shourav Dasari have organized a national spelling bee after the Scripps tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. It will take place online.

Shourav Dasari at age 13, during the finals of the 2016 National Spelling Bee, in National Harbor, Md.
Credit...Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

The words, equal parts obscure and baffling, torment her to this day.

For Shobha Dasari, it was bourrée, a French folk dance, that stumped her the first time she competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The next year, it was helophyte, and in her final year of competition it was siderism.

“It’s a pretty common saying among spellers: You never forget the words you misspell in bees,” Ms. Dasari, 19, now a Stanford University freshman and a three-time semifinalist in the national spelling bee, said in an interview on Thursday.

But for current eighth graders in their final year of eligibility for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is televised on ESPN, it is likely there will not be such moments this year. The competition, like so many marquee sporting and cultural events, announced this week that it had canceled the spelling bee because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s when Ms. Dasari and her brother, Shourav, stepped in to try to fill some of that void. The siblings, who are from The Woodlands in Texas and run a paid spelling bee prep service called SpellPundit, will host a national spelling bee of their own in the final week of May, when the Scripps tournament had been scheduled.

Like so many college courses, business meetings and get-togethers of friends, it will take place online, most likely on the videoconferencing platform Zoom.

“It is something that people spend years of their life working toward,” Ms. Dasari said. “To not have the opportunity to show off their skills in their last year of eligibility is heartbreaking.”

This year is the first time since World War II that the national finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have been canceled. The competition, which is held in National Harbor, Md., began in 1925. The spelling bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble, welcomed the concept of a virtual spelling bee.

“It’s a good outlet for these high-achieving super spellers to practice their spelling and demonstrate their talents,” Ms. Kimble said in a statement on Thursday. “We commend any opportunities to celebrate learning. We know the knowledge they have gained through their preparation will provide long-term benefits that will help them all their lives.”

The word Struldbrug, which comes from “Gulliver’s Travels,” tripped up Shourav, 17, when he competed in the spelling bee. So did campagnol, which Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as a European field vole.

Shourav, a high school junior, said he has been busy putting together a list of 1,000 to 1,500 words for the spelling bee. In the spelling bee world, lists of words used in competitions are a valuable commodity. SpellPundit, which counts many top spellers as customers, charges a $600 annual subscription fee for complete access to the lists and other features on its website.

So far, 200 to 250 students have registered for the online spelling bee, which costs $25 to enter and will take place from May 23 to May 28, according to Ms. Dasari, who is busy enlisting the help of judges, proctors and those whose job it is to pronounce the words.

There will be a $2,500 prize for first place, $1,000 for second and $500 for third, Ms. Dasari said, adding that the organizers will be keeping a watchful eye on the contestants on their webcams to make sure they’re not getting any outside help. They were also looking into blocking people from opening other tabs on their web browsers to look up the answers.

And there will be an honor system, she said.

Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success,” said she expects a clean competition.

“They tend to be kind of earnest kids, so I can see it working really well,” Dr. Shankar said of the spellers in an interview Thursday.

Dr. Shankar said the brother and sister, whom she interviewed for her book, have the wherewithal to pull off a virtual spelling bee. She said the cancellation of the Scripps National Spelling Bee was devastating for returning competitors and that an online tournament would give them some consolation.

“It’s way better than nothing,” she said. “That is just something that they were looking forward to since they were eliminated the previous year.”