SINGAPORE - Jerome Ng was first at the microphone - and also the last one standing.
The 10-year-old Primary 4 pupil from Henry Park Primary School out-spelt 38 others to become west zone champ in the first spoken round of The Big Spell yesterday.
Joining him were the three other zonal victors of the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship: In the north, Wong Yi Hao, 11, from Rosyth School; in the south, Thomas Ang, 12, from StJoseph's Institution Junior; and in the east, Eunice Goh, 10, from Tao Nan School.
They were among the 126 spellers who made it past the preliminary written round on March 1, which had 1,400 competitors from primary schools nationwide.
The zonal round was held simultaneously at the Woodlands Regional Library for the north, ITE College Central for the south, Tampines Regional Library for the east and the MOE Edutorium for the west.
To get to the top, pupils had to spell words like "dichotomy", "cantankerous" and "circumlocutory". Successful attempts were met with gasps from the audience.
Contestants had to spell their words orally, and were eliminated if they uttered incorrect letters or sequences.
In the north, Rosyth School Primary 6 pupil Ryan Wong, 11, threw his hands up in delight each time he got a word right. In the south, Huang Beihua, 12, a Primary 6 pupil from Zhangde Primary, kept the audience transfixed by tracing letters in the air as he spelt. He politely said "thank you" after each turn. Even when he had to bow out, he said: "Thank you, judges."
Ms Serene Goh, editor of IN and Little Red Dot, The Straits Times' weekly publications for schools, was chief judge at the east zone, and noted that every year, competitors came with different strategies.
"They get more sophisticated all the time, and that extends to their level of sportsmanship," she said. "There's more grace under pressure, and a show of respect for each other. That's what makes this show compelling: it's kids at their best."
Ms Norazzah Sulaiman, RHB Banking Group's head of group governance and corporate services, noted: "These young competitors are still in the process of discovering for themselves their own potential and embracing their talent."
The Big Spell is jointly organised by RHB Banking Group and The Straits Times, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. It is supported by ITE College Central, the National Library Board and technology firm HP.
Winners of each zone will receive $500 and a spot in the final on April 26. All other competitors will be ranked nationally, with about 20 to 30 spellers expected at the national showdown which features a top prize of $5,000.
For the first time, the final, to be held at the ITE College Central auditorium, will be open to the public. For tickets, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the action at www.straitstimes.com/big-spell-2014.
Additional reporting by Serene Luo, Nur Syahiidah Zainal, Amanda Phoon & Laremy Lee
This article was published on April 6 in The Straits Times.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.