WASHINGTON (AP) _ After getting every letter of ``salicylate,'' ``cribral'' and ``graupel,'' Hannah Grace Provenza had a little trouble spelling out her thoughts.

``It's beyond my comprehension. Wow,'' said the beaming 14-year-old from Rockford, Ill., one of 46 children to advance to Thursday's finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The oral competition of the 77th annual bee got off to a fast start Wednesday as 191 of the 265 spellers got their first word right. None of the children were eliminated right away. Instead, their results were combined with their scores from a 25-word written test Tuesday, which cut the field to 94.

And then came the familiar spelling bee format: one mistake and you're out.

When spellers heard the dreaded ding of the bell for a misspelling, they were escorted off stage to a comfort room of snacks and sodas _ and a dictionary, just in case they wanted to review what went wrong.

The spellers were competing for a top package of $17,000 in cash and other prizes, including $12,000 and an engraved cup from the bee itself.

At least 9 million children participated in local spelling bees that led to the national finals.

ESPN2 and ESPN, the cable sports networks, were covering the event Thursday. By the end of last year's finals, televisions in more than 664,000 homes were tuned to the bee, and that doesn't count those watching at schools or work, ESPN said.

The point of the bee is to help children improve their vocabularies, learn spelling concepts and develop correct English usage. But for these kids and their parents, there are other factors at play _ soaking in the Washington scene, taking pride in making it to the finals, enduring the increasingly tense contest.

One boy even practiced words aloud on his escalator ride to the ballroom.

Some of the stumpers Wednesday were ``phyllotaxy,'' ``triboluminescence,'' ``ziphioid,'' ``dacquoise'' and ``tachytely.''

The spellers range in age from nine to 15, and from grades four to eight, with most of them at the older end of that spectrum.

They employed different spelling styles in standing before an audience of roughly 1,000. Some were word detectives, asking for a definition and language of origin. Others knew their word _ or thought they did _ and barreled right on.

All spellers, no matter what their result, got a quick round of applause.

The bee put the written test first this year after some spellers in earlier competitions said they could have done well on it if they had not been banished after one jittery mistake on stage.

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On the Net:

Scripps National Spelling Bee: http://www.spellingbee.com