Top 29 pupils head for the Big Spell

The best of 1,200 participants to slug it out next Saturday

Twelve-year-old Jordan Foo received a belated birthday gift on Wednesday: a coveted place in the finals of a nationwide search for Singapore's best speller. 

The Anglo-Chinese School (Primary) pupil will slug it out with 28 others from other schools at the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship finals next Saturday.

The group of finalists - the largest number to date - represent the top spellers here and were whittled down from a pool of 1,200 contestants who took part in the preliminary rounds.

Jordan, who turned 12 on Tuesday, had tripped on "eking" in round seven, but he said he kept his hopes up despite not winning in the zone.

Only the four zonal winners were guaranteed a place, while the others were ranked nationally by the Ministry of Education (MOE).Natasha Lee, 10, thought she would not stand a chance as she was axed in round six, tripping on the word "sacrosanct".

So when her mum, teacher Cecilia Ow, 42, broke the news that she was in the finals, the first thing the Primary 5 pupil from Xinghua Primary School uttered was: "No... Really?"

"I didn't believe my mum. It was so shocking. I didn't think I would get in," she said.

Though she has a Scrabble competition on the same day, Natasha said she is picking the spelling competition because "my heart says spelling".

"I want to do the spelling because I put in a lot of hard work," she said. Besides working on her words, she will try to avoid falling ill ahead of next week's championship.

At the finals, pupils will have to spell their given words orally in front of a 500-strong audience. Utter one wrong letter and they will be out.

However, they may get help by asking questions such as what the word's language of origin is or what the definition is - all within a 60-second time limit.

Madam Halimah Yacob, the Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, will be the guest of honour at the event, to be held at the Raffles City Convention Centre.

Bragging rights aside, Singapore's champion speller will win $5,000 and a trophy, while his or her school will take the challenge trophy.

This is the first year RHB Banking Group and The Straits Times have teamed up to organise the event, which is held in partnership with MOE.

serl@sph.com.sg