Spelling Bee Director Paige Kimble said the rule change is a natural extension of the contest.
"The reason for the change is all about extending the bee's commitment to its purpose, which long has been not only to help students improve their spelling, but also to increase the vocabulary, learn concepts and develop correct English usage," she said.
This year's whiz kids aren't just good at putting vowels and consonants in the right order; 116 of them speak more than one language, and math is most frequently cited as their favorite subject, not spelling.
They range in age from 8 to 14, but nearly 90% of them are between 12 and 14 years old. The kids come from all 50 U.S. states and several American territories, plus the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.
Winning the bee has its perks. It's not just about the $30,000 cash prize from Scripps and engraved trophy -- past winners have returned home to a hero's welcome and met with the president.
This year's spelling competition begins Tuesday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. ESPN will broadcast the preliminary rounds starting Wednesday, with the finals slated for Thursday night.
Image: Dictionary page, via Shutterstock