Seemingly unfazed by the stage lights and television cameras, one gifted adolescent after the next approached the microphone on Thursday night and without a hint of timidity correctly spelled daunting words like “erysipelas” and “aiguillette.”
In the end, after 20 rounds had distilled a group of 562 competitive spellers to just eight, those who were left remained in a merciless logjam. Shortly after midnight, after the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee announced that it was running out of challenging words, each was crowned the winner in an eight-way tie.
It turned out the winners had more in common than an aptitude for spelling: Six of them had relied on SpellPundit, a coaching company started last year by two former competitive spellers, the teenage siblings Shobha and Shourav Dasari of Spring, Tex., a Houston suburb.
Even in a hypercompetitive age, when it is not uncommon for student athletes, musicians and scholars to spend hours each week honing their skills and résumés for college applications, the 562 spellers who competed this week in suburban Washington, D.C., are a dedicated and disciplined bunch.
One of the “octochamps,” Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas said he had spent about 30 hours a week studying the 120,000 words SpellPundit had culled from the 472,000 words in the dictionary.
For an annual subscription of $600, SpellPundit offers the massive list, which is sorted by difficulty levels and guarantees that it includes all words used in the competitions. Business took off after last year’s champion, Karthik Nemmani gave a shout-out to the service.
Of this year’s top 50 spellers, 38 were customers, according to Ms. Dasari, 18. One selling point, the siblings say, is that their comprehensive database of words and modules saves time. The Dasaris estimate that their service, which allows users to type the words instead of spelling them aloud, makes preparation four times faster.
But yesterday, some wondered whether the service had taken some of the innocence out of the contest.
“If spelling is ever going to work again: do something about SpellPundit,’’ wrote Jacob Williamson, a coach and former National Spelling Bee finalist, on his spelling blog, BeeNN. “SpellPundit is an incredibly useful resource, and the problem is that it’s too useful.”
The difficulty of the contest, long dominated by Indian Americans, had already ratcheted up over the last several years, with ESPN’s live broadcast bringing greater public attention to the contest and two other competitions, the North South Foundation spelling bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee, serving as proving grounds. And SpellPundit — plus other coaching services — has fundamentally changed the national contest, the co-champions and their parents said.
Harder words, some observers said, may now be necessary. On Friday, the Spelling Bee officials said they were considering their options.
“We are so proud of the octochamps,” said Paige Kimble, the executive director. “We are inspired by their achievement. Among other things, they are going to inspire us to find ways to better challenge them in competition. ”
Though many of the top spellers relied on the list they had purchased from SpellPundit, they still had to put in the study time, said Ms. Dasari, who recently graduated from high school and plans to attend Stanford in the fall.
“We give them the words, the spellers still have to learn them all,’’ she said. “But I think that availability of an organized word list definitely helps them.”
SpellPundit is among many test-prep tools for the spelling elite. As technology has shifted and the Bee has grown more prominent in recent decades — ESPN has aired it since 1994 — coaching has become a mainstay of the elite spelling circuit.
Coaching sessions can run more than $200 an hour, and at least one firm requires its students to sign nondisclosure agreements, sealing off their word lists and curriculum materials from people who do not pay. Many of the coaches were once among the nation’s top spellers — or parented them — as sharing tips and tricks evolved from a word-of-mouth tradition into a lucrative practice.
“They would rely on these families who age out of the game to then share their materials and give them advice,” said Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.”
“I think the scale of it got so big that at some point, they just decided to monetize it,” she continued.
Linda Tarrant, one of the nation’s foremost spelling coaches, said her company’s programs run at least eight weeks, with one hour of coaching each week by Skype or phone. But many students, she said, receive coaching for 18 months or longer.
“We teach vocabulary skills,” said Ms. Tarrant, who leads Hexco, a Texas-based company, and coached her three children in spelling. “We teach Latin and Greek elements. We teach rules for spelling words from different languages like Spanish and Japanese and Italian. The longer they’re in coaching, the more they get: They get down to Afrikaans, they get down to Polynesian.”
[We made a Spelling Bee quiz for you. Try your luck.]
Still, some people fear that the financial costs associated with spelling bees — travel expenses that can climb into the thousands of dollars and coaching bills that can run well into five figures — may be changing the character of the competitions. At the same time, experts said, youth competitions are changing in more arenas than spelling.
“I see it as keeping with what is happening with a lot of other aspects of children’s lives, and these kinds of pay-to-play competitions are so common in chess, in science fair,” said Dr. Shankar.
Last year, the Bee added a twist: Students who had lost at the regional levels would be allowed to compete in the national contest if they paid $750, plus expenses. This year, the “participation fee” doubled to $1,500, and the group of 562 included more contestants who had paid than those who had arrived the traditional way.
Even so, experts said they could not immediately recall any prolific spellers who had made it to the top ranks without some form of coaching, paid or not.
“In the history of this contest in its modern inception, somebody has to help the kid,” Dr. Shankar said. “It could be a teacher. It could be a parent or a paid individual or all three.”
But Dr. Shankar said that in her research, she found that students did not believe they were competing against themselves. In their minds, she said, it was them against the dictionary.
Indeed, in the last rounds, the contestants said, they were all pulling for one another. When each of the eight spelled their final word correctly, they hugged and exchanged high fives.
“You could tell everyone was happy that everyone else had won,’’ said Sohum, one of three from the Dallas area to win. “The thing about the spelling community is everyone is friends with each other.’’
Surveying the results on Friday, Dr. Shankar could only marvel at what had transpired in Maryland.
“They actually beat the dictionary,” she said with a sense of wonder. “Eight kids did.”