There is a growing amount of spelling lists and products in the market these days, but there doesn’t seem to be any actual empirical data available on how they’ve actually performed at the national bee. As a current coach and creator-of-lists, this piqued my curiosity. I wanted to see which lists are the most effective and which aren’t worth buying. So, I compiled lists of pretty much every spelling product within radar.
To put them to the test, I gathered each Scripps National Spelling Bee and set of additional words from regional bees since 1991. Then, I put the lists to a trial by fire, calculating the percentage of words each list contained in four different categories. This insight, as well as now possessing convenient digital files of the words in these otherwise disorganized lists, maximizes efficiency and saves lots of crucial time and effort for my students.
I decided to post data from the three most popular (and highest-percentage) lists on the market. These are The Consolidated Word List, Words of Wisdom, and New Nat’s Notes. I also decided to throw in my own list, The Master List, for comparison.
I measured each list by:
1991-2017 Surprise Words
2009-2017 Surprise Words
Regional Additional Words 1991-2017
Regional Additional Words 2009-2017
I made a 2009-2017 subgroup because this is the ‘modern era’ of the Bee. 2009 was the first year formatted with a Preliminaries Test, two preliminary oral rounds, and a maximum of fifty semifinalists. Words have become much more challenging and esoteric in this ‘modern era’.
The Consolidated Word List (all three sections)
1991-2017 Surprise Words – 84.11%
2009-2017 Surprise Words – 59.71%
Regional Additional Words 1991-2017 – 83.89%
Regional Additional Words 2009-2017 – 72.80%
Words of Wisdom (all four editions)
1991-2017 Surprise Words – 50.71%
2009-2017 Surprise Words – 64.63%
Regional Additional Words 1991-2017 – 51.03%
Regional Additional Words 2009-2017 – 40.61%
New Nat’s Notes
1991-2017 Surprise Words – 66.43%
2009-2017 Surprise Words – 53.82%
Regional Additional Words 1991-2017 – 67.79%
Regional Additional Words 2009-2017 – 59.00%
The Consolidated Word List + Words of Wisdom + New Nat’s Notes
1991-2017 Surprise Words – 95.61%
2009-2017 Surprise Words – 80.95%
Regional Additional Words 1991-2017 – 87.27%
Regional Additional Words 2009-2017 – 92.90%
The Master List
1991-2017 Surprise Words – 99.26%
2009-2017 Surprise Words – 97.18%
Regional Additional Words 1991-2017 – 97.85%
Regional Additional Words 2009-2017 – 95.95%
In summary, out of the three major lists, the Consolidated Word List was the best performing in the 1991-2017 bees and in both categories of Regional Additional Words. However, lately, Words of Wisdom has eclipsed the CWL at the national level, with a 64.63% success rate from 2009-2017.
These three lists leave a whole lot to be desired. Individually, they are nowhere close to guaranteeing anything at the national level. When you combine them, the percentages look a lot nicer. However, even if you manage to get past the hassle of each resource’s formatting, duplicate words, and confusing idiosyncrasies and memorize every word, you’ll still be missing a solid 20% of the words asked at the national competition. This may seem like a small percentage, but the words in that 20% are enormously critical. They’re what I call the ‘killer words’.
Since most of the spellers at the national competition use these three products as their study source, the words which do not appear on them have a much higher rate of knocking a speller out. The average Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion has to spell at least 5-6 of these killer words to win. If you want to win, you’ll need more than these lists. This is where the competitive advantage comes into play.
That’s what the Master List covers. With 97.18% of the Surprise Words since 2009, you’ll have a 59.76% chance of studying every word you get in an average-length bee. In fact, only one of the twelve champions since 2009 has had to spell a word not on the list on their way to victory. It gets better still. Cancelling out excessively basic words, words easily broken down into roots, and close relatives to words on the Master List (such as a plural when the list has the singular form), the list now has 99.19%. 99.19%. That’ll put your likelihood of having every word you get in the bee under this criteria at 86.38%.
Giving the same treatment to the three lists combined gives you 85.42% of the Surprise Words and a 5.86% chance of having studied all the words you get.
Check out my Coaching page for more information on the Master List.
Quick disclaimer: “Surprise Words” mean words that were not on any list provided to the spellers by Scripps. Note that in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2016, and 2017 there was a preliminary round which used Surprise Words, but because the words were overly simple and didn’t really blend with the other Surprise Words in terms of difficulty, I excluded them.