The Big Spell kicks off with a tense first round

Pupils displayed all sorts of nervous tics at yesterday's first round of a nationwide spelling competition.

A girl fluttered her eyelids at the word "remittance", a boy furrowed his brows at the word "magnanimous", while a few wiped their faces in between words.

These upper primary pupils packed the Fairmont Ballroom of the Raffles City Convention Centre yesterday, listening to a recording of 50 words and writing how they are spelt on answer sheets.

Close to 1,400 pupils registered for the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship (The Big Spell), organised by RHB Banking Group and The Straits Times in partnership with the Ministry of Education for the second year.

Puan Norazzah Sulaiman, director of group corporate services, RHB Banking Group, noted the "overwhelming response" from the pupils. This year's registration figure was the highest in a nationwide spelling competition here - higher than last year's 1,200.

Almost as though they were sitting a national exam, the pupils turned up early - some even one hour and 20 minutes ahead of the registration time - armed with word lists, notes and dictionaries for a last burst of preparation.

Their aim was to bag a place in the next round of The Big Spell. Only 108 of last year's 1,200 hopefuls made it. A similar number is expected to advance this year. The next round will be held simultaneously in four zones on April 13. And the finals will take place on April 27.

Among this year's participants were two Primary 4 pupils who sat at the back of the hall in wheelchairs - Keith Tan, 10, from Zhonghua Primary School, who has cerebral palsy; and Sanika Abhijit, 10, from Marymount Convent School who injured her left leg about a month ago.

Keith said of the round: "The first part was easy but from No. 27 onwards, there were many words I found difficult."

After the answer scripts were collected and counted, to be marked by ministry officials, the pupils left the venue discussing their answers.

A group of Rivervale Primary School pupils were heard asking one another: "How did you spell 'chiropractor'?"

Said Ms Serene Goh, editor of Little Red Dot, The Straits Times' weekly magazine for primary schools: "The fact that so many young people still prize this accomplishment just goes to show that they're not relying on technology to get things right. They want to do it themselves. That's inspirational."

Dr Tan Bee Geok, deputy director of the ministry's gifted education branch, said teachers preparing their pupils for the competition have enhanced the children's awareness of the use of words and their origins.

Spellers who make it to the next round will be informed through their schools by the end of the month.

Those not taking part in the main event can also play digital spelling games by e-learning sponsor iQ-hub on the Big Spell website - www.straitstimes.com/bigspell - or download it as an app on the Android platform.