Well before the sun rose yesterday, pupils arrived at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre for the biggest Big Spell ever.
Despite getting there as early as 6.45am although registration began only at 8am, many were unprepared for the sight of over 1,800 seats - spread across exhibition halls the size of about eight basketball courts - at the preliminary round of the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship.
Wide-eyed, first-timer Cherie Leong, 10, a Teck Ghee Primary School pupil in Primary 5, said: "It's very big. I didn't expect so many people to take part."
Indeed, the 2016 Big Spell kick-off received its largest number of participants in its five-year history: 1,805. That is about a 10 per cent increase from last year's, and a 50 per cent rise over the 2012 edition, the first time this paper took over its reins.
Such was the determination of Nicole Ong, nine, that even a fractured foot could not stop her. Pushed into the venue in a wheelchair, the plucky Nanyang Primary School Primary 4 pupil said: "It's a new experience. I want to try it."
RISING NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS
YEAR 1, 2012: 1,200 participants
YEAR 2, 2013: 1,400 participants
YEAR 3, 2014: More than 1,400 participants
YEAR 4, 2015: 1,654 participants
YEAR 5, 2016: 1,805 participants
The round started easily, with competitors quickly writing down the first few words they heard - such as "leisure" and "reek", from the audio recording. As words became trickier, many took longer to think before offering their answers.
Spellers had mixed reactions after the hour-long written test. Speaking to The Sunday Times afterwards, second-time participant Sherrifah Raina Alkaff, 11, from North View Primary School, found this year's preliminary easier than last year's. The Primary 6 pupil was thrilled that words she knew were among those tested, including "pterodactyl": "That one I learnt from reading a dinosaur book when I was five."
Another second-timer, Yio Chu Kang Primary School's Akif Budiman Hasren, 11, also found this year's round easier than last year's. But the Primary 5 pupil said it was still tough, and reckoned he would not make it to the next round.
Repeat participant Dilan Tan, 11, who was a finalist last year, felt the standard was "about the same". The Primary 6 pupil from St Joseph's Institution Junior said he was tripped up by a few words, such as "the one that starts with an 'h'".
Two words starting with "h" were among pupils' most commonly cited difficult words. Haberdashery is a term for sewing materials, while herpetology is a branch of zoology about amphibians and reptiles.
Addressing the participants at the end of the session, Ms Serene Goh, editor of The Straits Times Schools team, which drives the annual event, described the sportsmanship displayed by the pupils as "the heart and soul of any competition".
Mr Jason Wong, country head of RHB Bank Singapore, hopes pupils will enjoy and learn from the competition, despite each edition's increasing intensity.
The award-winning Big Spell, which picked up two international prizes in its first year, is organised by RHB Banking Group and The Straits Times, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. It is supported by the National Library Board and Nanyang Polytechnic, with venue partners Singapore Zoo and Suntec Singapore.
After yesterday's round, only the top 20 or so spellers in each zone - north, south, east and west - will qualify for the next round, one of two oral rounds, on April 16. Schools will be notified of the results by April 6.
Following the zonals, spellers will be nationally ranked, with the top 20 or so expected at the finals on April 30. They will vie for the top prize of $5,000 and the challenge trophy for their school.
•For more information: www.straitstimes.com/bigspell