One of my students recently commented that winning words in years past seem a lot easier than they do nowadays. And this is absolutely true. Consider the likes of "therapy," "knack," and "initials." These words - and many other winning words from past national bees - are so simple, they would not even be considered for the national word list today.
Spellers in years past had much less exposure to larger, more difficult words than they do now. Moreover, the English language has been expanding rapidly, and new words are being added to the dictionary every day. Take the word "glitch," for example. Glitch was not a very well-known word over 30 years ago - in fact, Webster's Third (W3) officially shows it entered the English language only in 1962 - and it tripped up a future national champion. But nowadays, the word is quite commonplace.
With greater exposure to more complex words - and an increasing abundance of word lists from past years - spellers became more well-prepared. Spelling bees by necessity became more difficult. But once you exhausted those lists, poring through the behemothian W3 looking for difficult words remained an exercise in randomness and near-futility, just as it had been for years. This was, in large part, how I studied in the last few months preceding my last national bee, and looking through these lists from years ago, I'm struck by how many of these words were inappropriate for the bee. Words with variants, words that were overly technical and arcane, and words that sprang from regional dialects or had become obsolete were common in my lists. It was serendipity that I received one of these random words - morion - shortly before I won.
One of the most important influences on spellers nowadays has been the release of the immense Consolidated Word List. Spanning over 24,000 words that have been used in bees dating to 1950, the CWL is a tremendously valuable document for spellers. Nowadays, truly serious spellers aim to memorize the whole list. It is nearly a foregone conclusion that
many national semifinalists and most, if not all, finalists have this list down cold.
However, the internet is the single largest influence on the current generation of spellers. Webster's Third New International Dictionary is fully accessible online, and with it, the capacity to search for words that has made sleuthing exponentially more fruitful. For example, finding all the French words that have to do with ballet can now be done in a matter of seconds; before the internet, this was nearly an impossible task, and certainly not worth the time looking through the whole dictionary.
I want to emphasize how helpful the internet can be in not just learning how to spell words, but to learn what they mean. Images and videos can be invaluable toward this end. For example, "typhoon" is merely a word in the Asian word list of Spell It until you see a satellite image of this vast storm, and it becomes much more memorable when you watch a video of the power a typhoon can unleash. Likewise, the Dutch word "springbok" may not mean much until you see images and videos of this beautiful, graceful African antelope-gazelle - like the one above. Using the internet this way can also make learning the definitions of the Spell It words much more effective. It also brings spelling away from the realm of rote memorization.