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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Contestants in this week's Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee will have to sharpen their No. 2 pencils along with their wits.

The competition, slated to begin early Wednesday with a record 250 finalists, will feature a 25-word written test in the second round, winnowing the field down to as few as 80 spellers who score highest.

The number of finalists has been growing for the past several years, forcing organizers last year to expand the competition to three days, Director Paige Kimble said.

``We became worried about our ability to concentrate and give the kids what they needed,'' she said. The test will knock it back down to two days.

Kimble, the 1981 national champ, said Round One words, traditionally among the most difficult, come from a list of 3,700 that contestants are allowed to study. After that, they're on their own _ though downloading and studying a list of 18,667 words used in past spelling bees will give them a good idea of what to expect.

Only about 800 words are used in the finals each year.

Home schoolers have shone in the past few years, winning in 1997 and 2000. Sean Conley, last year's champ, was home-schooled until the year of the competition, and this year's finalists include 27 home schoolers; 167 attend public schools and 55 attend private or parochial schools. For the first time, finalists include a charter school student.

Among returning finalists is Michael Hessenauer, 14, of Dublin, Ohio, who placed third last year and fifth in 2000. In 2001, Hessenauer went nine rounds before missing ``cancelli,'' a word for latticework screens used to separate parts of a church.

Seven other three-time finalists join him, while two others _ Erik M. Bolt of South Bend, Ind., and Emily Cole of Kingston, N.Y. _ try for a fourth time.

The field also includes a blind student, 14-year-old Kayla Withers of Meadville, Pa. If she makes it to Round 2, Kayla will record her written test answers on a Braille typewriter.

This year's winner takes home $12,000 and the chance to shake hands with President Bush.

The 250 spellers, sponsored by their local newspapers, hail from every state except Vermont and Utah, and from several U.S. territories.

Thursday's finals will be broadcast live on the ESPN cable sports network.

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On the Net:

http://www.spellingbee.com