NOEL KING, HOST:
More than 500 kids are showing off their mastery of spelling this week at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Karthik Nemmani from McKinney, Texas, won last year. Here he is.
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KARTHIK NEMMANI: Koinonia - K, O, I, N, O, N, I, A - koinonia.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That is correct.
KING: There is always plenty of drama, and this year's opening round on Tuesday was no exception. Thirteen-year-old Max Greenspan was spelling out mot juste, a French phrase that means the exact right word, and he paused a few seconds to figure out whether to add a final E when a judge rang the bell to declare that Max had spelled the word wrong. But after a review, Max was reinstated, since there is no rule against pausing in the middle of a word. Shalini Shankar's most recent book is about the latest generation of spellers.
SHALINI SHANKAR: I've seen the competition get much more intense, and it's also grown in terms of broader interest and the number of kids who come to D.C.
KING: Your book focuses on Generation Z spellers, so kids who were born '96, '97 or after. How does their work ethic differ from kids who were born earlier?
SHANKAR: Well, any kid who makes it to the National Spelling Bee is going to have worked hard to get there. But what spellers need to do now to become competitive and advance in the contest is so much more intense. So they spend hours before school, after school, on weekends really honing their craft to become elite spellers.
KING: And is this beneficial to kids? Because it sounds a little sad, I mean, the idea that a kid could be outside playing and instead is inside with a dictionary.
SHANKAR: I think it's a version of childhood that is becoming more and more common today - kids who are specializing and becoming experts in really esoteric things and becoming masters at them very young. And so I think these kids enjoy it to the degree that one can enjoy being so intensively focused on something.
KING: One thing about your book that I like was you point out how media-savvy some of these kids are. I mean, you think of them as - and I say this as a former speller - you think of them as nerds, but they are really comfortable around TV cameras. They do interviews. They're on ESPN. It's extraordinary.
SHANKAR: It is. They are very comfortable with the camera, or at least they become comfortable over time. They also love the exposure. They work so hard, and I think when they finally get that moment to shine, they want that, and they take it.
KING: We talk a lot in this country about whether or not we're putting kids under too much pressure to compete. Let me ask you two questions. In your book, you point out that a lot of the kids tell you it's not so much that they're competing with each other, they're competing with the dictionary. Do you believe them?
SHANKAR: I do believe them.
SHANKAR: In part because there's such an element of luck involved in which word they get and whether they know it. So I'll hear from some kids that they didn't know another kid's word in the same round, but they knew theirs, and so they advance. So if they learn the dictionary to the degree that they need to, they can win.
KING: And you point out that some of these relationships between kids and families go on for years after the spelling bee.
SHANKAR: They do, and often there are younger siblings who start to get involved, and there are just family and community members who get drawn to it because one speller has done really well. So that legacy continues.
KING: Legacy spellers, I love that idea.
KING: Shalini Shankar's latest book is "Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path To Success."
Shalini, thanks so much.
SHANKAR: Thank you so much.
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