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Scripps National Spelling Bee is getting tougher

Published Apr. 22, 2016

WASHINGTON — After two straight years of ties, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is adding more sting: The championship rounds will last longer, and the words will be harder.

The bee, now televised in prime time by ESPN, has exploded in popularity over the past two decades. And the spellers have gotten increasingly savvy. So instead of sticking to a list of 25 "championship words" selected weeks earlier, the final rounds could have as many as 75 words. And the organizers can choose harder words on the fly if the spellers don't appear to be struggling.

"As difficult as those words offered those co-champions were, we had a more difficult section in our word list, but we couldn't go to them because our rules bound us to stick to that 25-word championship word section," Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director, told the Associated Press.

Before 2014, the system worked well enough. There hadn't been a tie in more than 50 years. And the tie two years ago was a bit of a fluke: Both spellers got one of the championship words wrong, but since they misspelled back-to-back, the bee continued.

Then last year, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, both veteran spellers who had come close in previous bees, plowed through the championship words with ease. Gokul's last word was "nunatak," which means a hill or mountain surrounded by glacial ice. He "spelled it in one second," Kimble said.

Current and former spellers applauded the changes, saying the hardest words should be last. On occasion, championship words have left veteran spellers underwhelmed. Tejas Muthussamy, 13, of Glen Allen, Va., and Sylvie Lamontagne, 13, of Lakewood, Colo., finalists last year who are returning, both said tougher words were used earlier in the finals.

"The 25 words on the championship word list just tend to be a little bit easier than the other words they've used right before that," Sylvie said. "I don't really know why."

The changes mean the bee, which usually wraps up between 10 and 11 p.m. on the last day, could run later this year. Tejas Muthussamy, 13, of Glen Allen, Va., said he's trying to prepare for the May 24-26 championship by practicing late at night.

There will also be bigger rewards. The first-place cash prize is rising from $30,000 to $40,000, while second place will now get $30,000 and third place, $20,000.

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