Why does America love spelling bees?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee, now in its 89th year, has revamped for 2016 with harder words in the last round. Organizers hope to avoid a tie for first place. 

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Akash Vukoti, 6, of San Angelo, TX, the youngest contestant at the 89th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, lowers the microphone for his turn during a preliminary round at National Harbor in Maryland on Wednesday.

Each year, the spring rolls around, bringing with it several things for many Americans to be excited about: flowers in bloom, warmer weather, the end of school, and, of course, the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Since 1925, the annual orthographic competition has brought together students from around the United States – and beyond – to be whittled down through several rounds of intense examination that produce a national champion. This year marks the 89th edition of the national bee, with a field of 45 finalists competing through the final round, each hoping for a chance at the Bee championship trophy and $40,000. Amazon, Merriam-Webster, and Encyclopedia Britannica are also contributing prizes to the eventual winner.

This year's bee will be slightly different than the last two, which both featured co-champions for only the fifth and sixth times in Scripps history. Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe rolled through the Scripps word list before a tie was called in 2014, and Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were declared co-champions last year.

The success of those students may have partially prompted the implementation of a harder, longer championship round in an effort to crown a sole winner this year. And it's proven tough, so far: The first finals round Thursday saw 24 out of 45 children misspell their words, eventually leaving a field of 10 finalists for the Bee's conclusion.

That change is indicative of the E.W. Scripps Company's focus on considering feedback from schoolchildren and parents, helping it maintain its popularity over a near-century of competition. Scripps corporate communications manager and Bee spokesperson Valerie Miller told The Christian Science Monitor that the bee's efforts to adapt, as well as a personal nostalgia factor, make the Bee relevant to viewers year after year.

"It's an experience that everyone can relate to, and it kind of draws them back to their own childhood," Ms. Miller said in a telephone interview with the Monitor, adding that the kids' successes and setbacks make people look back and ask "What was my word that I missed in whatever grade?"

An element of competition also fuels interest in the bee, Miller said. The contest is in the midst of its sixth consecutive year being broadcast on ESPN, exposure that has given Scripps an international primetime audience. It's also "really exploded" on Twitter in the past two years, she adds. 

Scripps has also partnered with Amazon's Kindle this year, updating with current technology to "help us in building our study materials," according to Miller.

And of course, the actual spelling draws viewers as well. The English language's oddities help to make spelling bees fascinating, especially when its masters are children in the eighth grade or below.

"It's a skill that people can appreciate," Miller said, adding that while it isn't as visceral or visual as sporting prowess, intelligence and the ability to spell is still "a dramatic skill that is out of reach for many."

Each year's bee usually features interesting and feel-good stories to inspire viewers. This year, that includes 11-year-old Neil Maes, who was born deaf, and the homeschooled 6-year-old Akash Vukoti, one of the Bee's youngest ever participants, who is only a first-grader.

"He's an incredible little boy who has such an amazing future, and he really captured the hearts and minds of all of our audiences," Miller said.

The final round of the 89th Scripps National Spelling Bee will be held Thursday night in National Harbor, Md.

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