In Washington, D.C., Thursday, the best young spellers from across the United States competed to become the nation's top speller.  VOA's Margaret Besheer was at the competition finals and files this report.

ANNOUNCER:  "Empyreal, it means celestial."
SPELLER: "Empyreal?"
ANNOUNCER:  "Empyreal is one of the pronunciations."
SPELLER: "E-M-P-I-R-I-A-L. Empirial."
ANNOUNCER:  "Empyreal is E-M-P-Y-R-E-A-L."

Anurag Kashyap is interviewed after winning the 78th annual National Spelling Bee
The finals began Wednesday with 273 competitors, but by Thursday afternoon, their ranks had thinned to only two.  In the end, it was the word "appoggiatura", a musical term, that spelled victory for 13-year-old Anurag Kashyap from Poway, California.

KASHYAP:  "Appoggiatura... A-P-P-O-G-G-I-A-T-U-R-A ."

Preparation for the bee is intense, with the children putting as much effort into learning new words as athletes do to train for the Olympics.  Stacia Firebaugh, 14, from Kokomo, Indiana is typical of most of the finalists.

"I've been mostly studying for the past couple of months, about 20 hours a week," she said.

Parents of spellers say the bee is as nerve-wracking for them as it is for their kids.

"Oh it's horrible. I'd rather not be here," she said.  "And you really root for all the kids, you know, as each one comes up you're disappointed when they misspell and you're kind of cheering inside when they spell correctly. So we're all kind of in this together."

Mary Brooks, head judge and a teacher from West Des Moines, Iowa, says the bee is a great motivational aid in the classroom.

"For kids that thrive on this kind of thing, it allows them to set goals and go after something that allows them to show how well-read they are, how well-versed they are in various subjects and languages. It definitely is a teaching and learning tool," she said.

The spelling bee has become a popular culture phenomenon in the United States.  There are currently two movies and a Broadway musical about spelling bees, and a book is in the works.

This is the 78th annual National Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Scripps newspaper company.  Most of the competitors are ages nine to 14. The bee's director, Paige Kimble, is herself a former national champion, and says there is much at stake for the winner.

"The champion will walk away with nearly $30,000 in cash, scholarships and prizes," she said.

In the end, however, there can only be one national champion, and for this year, that honor went to Anurag Kashyap, an eighth grader from Meadowbrook Middle School in Poway, California.