​Overview of the Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee

​Overview of the Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee

Published by Beth Mader on 15th Apr 2021

In 2020, spellers around the nation were deprived of their chance to attend the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee because of the coronavirus. The goal of the Hexco Online Spelling Bee was to provide the optimal spelling bee experience in spite of the limitations caused by the pandemic, and to fulfill this dream, Hexco Academic teamed up with Kaplan Test Prep, a provider of educational programs and services, to host a national online spelling bee. Hexco's venerated word knowledge combined with Kaplan's expertise in video production, test monitoring, and live streaming services made it possible for spellers to safely compete at the highest level of spelling competition the last week of July 2020.


A total of 88 participants ranging from first to eighth grade registered. These spellers were given a study list of 600 words to prepare for the first oral round and part of the preliminary written test.

Preliminary Written Spelling and Vocabulary Test 

Each of these contained 25 questions to be completed in one hour with all participants taking the test through a portal organized by Kaplan and monitored using Zoom rooms. Forty-eight spellers actually advanced.

Oral Rounds 1 & 2

All spellers competed in two oral rounds during an assigned time slot with 25 to 50 spellers online at the same time concurrently. If a speller spelled his or her Round 1 word correctly, that participant advanced to Round 2 and immediately was given a Round 2 word to spell. These rounds were miss-and-out format. A score of 21 or higher on the preliminary written rounds was required to advance to the semifinals.


There were 48 semifinalists. Round 3 kicked off the competition, and a handful of spellers were eliminated with words such as appellation and jeroboam. Nine more spellers left Round 4 on foliiform, missalette, and caplin, to name a few. Five spellers were eliminated in Round 6 on the words Krummholz, Leicester, calyculus, kanone, and piezometer. After 7 hours of spelling, the remaining 21 spellers were declared the finalists.


Pronouncers for the first two oral rounds included 2017 National Spelling Bee champion Ananya Vinay and Michelle Horton, head coach for Hexco Academic. Pronouncers for the remaining 28 rounds were National Senior Spelling Bee champ David Riddle and Hexco founder and 6th place winner of the 1987 National Spelling Bee, Valerie Tarrant Browning.

Guest Judges 

The guest judges included three past National Spelling Bee Champions, Ananya Vinay (2017), Sriram Hathwar (2014), and Ned Andrews (1994), plus the 2016 National runner-up, Snehaa Ganesh Kumar. Sravanth Malla, the 2017 South Asian Spelling Bee champion, participated as a judge as well as Rahul Walia, the director and driving force behind the South Asian Spelling Bee. Aisha Randhawa, who competed at Nationals four times, finally placing 7th , was also a guest judge along with fill-in people from Hexco Academic.


The finals were live streamed on YouTube and hosted by Rob Simmelkjaer, founder and CEO of Persona Media. He previously spent most of his career working as a sports media executive in a number of positions with NBC Sports and ESPN. Rob established a comedic atmosphere, frequently joking with spellers and making them feel more relaxed.


The top three, Zaila, Harini, and Chaitra, would compete against the dictionary for another 17 rounds. Each one of the competitors grew more determined with each word, but Zaila emerged victorious. The winning word was Qashqai, which is a migratory Turkic-speaking people of the Zagros Mountains. With the win, Zaila beat out 88 of the best spellers around the country and took home $10,000 along with a giant trophy. Harini was awarded $4,000, and Chaitra won $1,500. All three were also given free Kaplan test prep courses.

For a recap of the 2019 National Spelling Bee and other spelling news, download our After-A-Spell.

Good luck and good spelling!