Spellers at this year's RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship faced tougher competition in the zonal round yesterday for a spot in the grand final.
Surmounting a word list that included "subterfuge", "macchiato", "stymie", "emissary" and "antidisestablishment", pupils proved to be better prepared than those in last year's fight, making for a more intense competition.
It turned into a test of stamina as much as skill, especially in the south zone, where 44 spellers were whittled down through a record 11 rounds. Kua Le Yi, 10, from Catholic High School (Primary) captured the top spot with "numismatics".
By comparison, the most number of rounds last year was eight.
Mrs Soo Kim Bee, a senior specialist from the Ministry of Education's Gifted Education Branch, said of this year's crop: "I'm very pleased with the calibre of the pupils. They have obviously worked very hard."
This year's 132 zonal participants earned their spots through a written preliminary round on March 9 of nearly 1,400 registrants.
Yesterday's four-way fight was held simultaneously at the Woodlands Regional Library for the north zone, Nanyang Polytechnic's Theatre for the Arts for the south, Tampines Regional Library for the east and the MOE Edutorium for the west. Contestants had to get up on stage and spell their words into a microphone. Any mistake got them eliminated.
Surprises emerged in some zones, where former finalists bowed out earlier. Last year's overall second-placed Shaughn Chan, 12, bowed out in round five at the south zone, while last year's south zone winner Ashvin Sivakumar was among the last six but bowed out at round nine. Both are from Anglo-Chinese School (Primary).
Zonal champions will go to the finals, while other pupils will be ranked on their performance to see who else makes the cut.
First-timers took the champion spots in three zones - the south, east and west.
In the north, Rosyth School's Koh Qin Ruo, 12, cleared "moribund" for the title. Her schoolmate Wong Yi Hao, 10, last year's north zone champion, bowed out in round five. He said: "My mum says I didn't prepare enough this year."
In the west, Ng Jun-Kai, 11, a Primary 5 pupil from Unity Primary School, triumphed with "gastroenterology" while in the east, Primary 6 pupil Samuel Foo, 11, from St Hilda's Primary School, won with a lengthy "incomprehensibilities".
Meanwhile, east zone runner-up Yong Xu Kang, 12, from Tao Nan School, had the audience in stitches with his theatrical sighs of relief after a few close shaves with words he was unsure of.
And in the south, the epic quest for the champion ran for three hours and 40 minutes, with almost a quarter of the contenders still in the game after seven rounds.
The finals will be held on April 27. For more on the Big Spell, go to www.straitstimes.com/bigspell