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American kids have gotten too smart for the Spelling Bee

Alex Wong/Getty Images

For as long as I can remember, I have been an avid viewer and fan of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I love everything about it, from the nerdy kids getting their moment in the spotlight on ESPN to their sheer excitement when they get a word right.

Recently, though, I've noticed a disturbing problem with the Spelling Bee — one that could doom its existence as a great American pastime. My fears became amplified last night, watching the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

My worry — and I have data to back it up — is this: American kids are becoming too smart for the Spelling Bee.

A fifth-grade student was one of this year's Spelling Bee co-champions

Students are allowed to compete in the Spelling Bee up through eighth grade. And usually it takes till this advanced stage of middle school for students to have enough practice and skill to actually win the competition.

Enter Nihar Janga, a fifth-grade student whom this year's announcers accurately dubbed "the machine." This was the 11-year-old's first time at the Bee — and he won the damn thing (along with co-champion Jairam Hathwar).

Watching last night, you kind of got the feeling that nothing could stop Nihar. This kid not only knew how to spell his words, he knew the definitions before they were given. (When he received the word "biniou," Nihar coolly responded, "Is that a Breton bagpipe?" Mic drop, Nihar out.) He watched as his competitors just could not match his prowess.

Nihar is great. Nihar could spell all night. Nihar will be everyone's boss one day. Nihar is a menace to the Spelling Bee who needs to be stopped.

We are running out of words that American children cannot spell

Champion Spellers Compete In Scripps National Spelling Bee
Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, the 2015 co-champions. You know they totally don't want to share that trophy.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Speaking of Nihar, it's important to note that he didn't win the trophy on his own — he had to share it with his co-champion, seventh-grader Jairam Hathwar.

And that's another sign of our spelling overlords' increasing talent: More Spelling Bees are ending because we simply run out of words that students can't spell.

Here's how the final round of the Spelling Bee used to work. Once the competition was narrowed to two or three competitors, officials went to a list of 25 words. These were supposed to be the Bee's hardest words, reserved for the very top contenders.

For decades, this list of 25 words was enough to stump at least one of the finalists, allowing the other competitor to be deemed the champion.

But something weird happened in 2014: Both finalists got all their words right. It happened again in 2015. So for two years in a row, we had back-to-back co-champions who did not get a single word wrong during the two-day, televised competition.

Co-championships used to be rare in the spelling bee world. Before 2014, there had only been three such instances in the Bee's 90-year history.

Bee officials — clearly sensing this worrisome trend — decided to make the 2016 Bee harder. Instead of 25 final words, they changed the rules to allow 25 final rounds of competition. This means that once the field was narrowed to two or three spellers, there would be a maximum 25 rounds of competition. This meant each speller could face a maximum of 25 total words, many more than years past.

Nihar and Jairam looked at this petty challenge. And they crushed it, spelling for 25 straight rounds until about 11 pm — much past everyone's bedtime.

There was a 6-year-old in this year's Spelling Bee with a four-page résumé

The youngest competitor in this year's spelling bee was 6-year-old Akash Vukoti, who is simultaneously adorable and terrifying. He bounces around hallways and off walls like any other first-grader. He can also spell the word pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis without missing a beat. It rolls right off his tongue in a somewhat unnerving way.

akash big word

Akash is much younger than the other Bee competitors, most of whom are in middle school. But here's what is especially notable about this California spelling phenom: He's a lot younger than the other youngest kids who have competed in previous years.

In the 2015 Spelling Bee, the youngest speller was 9. In 2014, the youngest speller was 8. The 2013 Spelling Bee also had a youngest speller who was 8. In 2012 there was a 6-year-old in the competition, so Akash's appearance is not entirely unprecedented. Still, the return of an exceptionally young speller is another sign of the Spelling Bee's waning challenge.

What's up with all these really good spellers?

It's possible that the increased achievement in spelling could reflect general gains in education in the United States, with our overall population of middle school students just getting a lot smarter.

After all, I've written about other data sets that show this generation of teens to be the best behaved on record — they smoke less, drink less, and have sex less than previous generations. Maybe they spend all that extra time studying for spelling bees?

Nope. This theory doesn't bear out in the data — instead, test scores in reading have essentially held constant for the past few decades (and even dropped a little in the most recent round of testing).

Instead, it seems like what is happening in spelling might be something akin to what is happening in sports: We're constantly learning more and more about how to do something better. Athletes keep, impressively, breaking Olympic records, lifting heavier weights and running faster races.

Spelling appears to be in a similar arms race. Kids improve on their studying techniques, learn more words, and ultimately become the spelling machines we never knew they could be. While this is probably good for their own academic achievement, it could bode quite poorly for the annual spectacle of the National Spelling Bee. An army of perfect spellers could ultimately spell — sorry — doom for the beloved event.

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