Spelling Bee En Route to First Prime-Time Finale

From nullipara and immolate to hyphaeresis and ikat, the annual national spelling bee got off to a fast start Wednesday en route to its first televised, prime-time finale.

Each of the 274 spellers, the largest group to compete in the history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, got a chance at the microphone to spell a word and earn three points.

But getting it wrong didn't necessarily spell the end for any contestant.

Scores from this oral round, Round Two, were combined with the spellers' scores from a 25-word, multiple-choice spelling test that was the first order of bee business on Wednesday.

The combined scores — three points for correct oral spelling and up to 25 points on the written test — were used to winnow the group to the best of the bunch, who will compete for bragging rights and more than $42,000 in cash and prizes.

A total of 97 spellers qualified and advanced to Round Three, and they were returning to the stage later Wednesday to continue the competition. These spellers earned at least 21 points, out of a maximum 28, to be eligible to continue, bee director Paige Kimble announced.

As if the contest to be crowned America's best speller wasn't already intense enough, this year it includes the first live, prime-time network broadcast of the finals, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT Thursday on ABC.

In Round Two, the first 140 students sat on an elaborate, red-and-blue stage, some deep in concentration with heads bowed or resting in their palms. Others yawned, or chatted up their seat mates. They were followed by the second group of 134 spellers, who looked just as serious.

At least one comedian was among the spellers.

"Can you spell that?" asked Jeremiah Weaver, a 10-year-old, fifth-grader who is home-schooled in Jackson, Mich., after hearing his word, "xiphias," which is a swordfish.

"Not right now," came the reply from pronouncer Jacques Bailly.

Turns out Jeremiah didn't need help. He spelled the word correctly.

After the scores are tabulated and the spellers for Round Three determined, the bee will continue with round after round of process-of-elimination spelling until a winner is crowned.

Spell a word correctly and advance; fumble and the bell tolls. Contestants may ask questions about a word's pronunciation, definition, part of speech, use in a sentence and etymology.

Some spellers asked all the above.

"Can I please have the etymology? Can you repeat the word again? Are there any alternate pronunciations?" came the queries from Kavya Shivashankar, a fifth-grader at Regency Place Elementary School in Olathe, Kan., who likes all subjects in school, but especially math and reading.

The 10-year-old did what amounted to some imaginary scribbling in her palm before correctly spelling "tendresse," which means tender feeling. Then Kavya spun around on her heels and returned to her seat.

Spellers range in age from 9 to 15, and are in grades four through eight.

They are almost evenly divided between boys (139) and girls (135) and qualified for the 79th annual bee by winning local contests in the 50 states, as well as in American Samoa, the Bahamas, Canada, Europe, Guam, Jamaica, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

About one-fourth, or 66, are making repeat appearances, including two eighth-graders who are competing in their fifth and final bee. Both will return for Round Three.

Since 1994, the second day of spelling has been broadcast on ESPN.

But under a new arrangement this year, in a nod to the popularity of "reality TV," the sports cable network will broadcast Thursday's early rounds of competition in the afternoon, followed by ABC's airing of the championship rounds to a larger viewing audience in prime time.

Spelling bees are gaining in popularity, thanks partly to the ESPN broadcasts and the competition's starring roles in movies, including the recently released "Akeelah and the Bee," and a Tony-winning Broadway musical, said Kimble, the bee's 1981 champion.

The Louisville Courier-Journal started the bee in 1925. The E.W. Scripps Co., a media conglomerate, assumed sponsorship in 1941.

Wednesday's competition was not being televised live.