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Archive for Thursday, May 29, 2003

Spellers strive to be letter-perfect

May 29, 2003

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— Confident about your ABC's? Try your XYZ's.

Tom Kasmer knows his. The 14-year-old national spelling finalist who attends school in Belmont, N.C., got a word that sounded like "zistee" during competition Wednesday. Standing alone before the judges, Kasmer made it look easy: "xysti," as in an open portico.

One by one they strolled to the microphone, all 251 youngsters in the 76th Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Each got a word in the one-and-done mistake format; 175 got them right.

The rest drew a single clang of the bell, signifying it was time to be escorted to a comfort room of snacks and consolation. Some had missed their word by a single vowel. Others knew they had guessed badly but they still walked off with grace.

Among the most impressive feats: "chrysochlorous," "sphygmogram," "leptocephalid," "foliicolous," and "serictery."

By noon, the audience was asked to leave the room, but only briefly, as staff prepared to give the survivors a group test of 25 words.

The results, announced hours later, cut the field to 84. Survivors made errors on no more than 10 words.

Bee officials introduced the test last year as a way to speed up the contest but ensure that every student got at least one chance at the microphone. The bee is larger than ever, and spellers now tend to spend more time before offering answers.

JJ Goldstein, 13, of Great Neck, N.Y., rubs her temples while
taking the written test during the second round of the 76th annual
National Spelling Bee in Washington. The finals of the bee will be
televised today.

JJ Goldstein, 13, of Great Neck, N.Y., rubs her temples while taking the written test during the second round of the 76th annual National Spelling Bee in Washington. The finals of the bee will be televised today.

The pressure may well rise today, with national coverage of the final round planned by ESPN, the cable sports network. All spellers win some cash depending upon performance. The winner gets $12,000 and other prizes.

In the initial round, some students took advantage of every clue they could seek from the pronouncer. Others spelled their words and learned their fate in 10 seconds.

Marshall Winchester, a sixth-grader in Waxhaw, N.C., repeated his word loudly in a Southern accent: "harmattan." It means a dry dust-laden wind blowing from the interior on the Atlantic coast of Africa in some seasons. To Marshall, it meant another shot at glory, as he offered the correct spelling.

Students prepared for the finals in various ways. Some studied nightly for more than a year while others seemed content just making it this far.

On stage, the spellers applauded each other's efforts. From their seats, some exchanged perplexed looks as the words were read, thankful that they were not handed something so baffling.

The group featured almost an even number of boys and girls, most on the older end of an age range that stretched from 8 to 15.

Kansas' lone representative in the spelling bee, Nina Mathew, 11, of Pittsburg Middle School, was eliminated Wednesday in the second round.

Two spellers took part in the finals for the fourth time: Dallas eighth-grader Sai Gunturi and Kelsey Swaim, an eighth-grader in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Both got their first words right.

So did Catherine Miller, an eighth-grader in Niskayuna, N.Y. When she nailed "moulage," which means molding, Miller smiled, twirled her hair and jumped back into her front-row seat.

Last year, it took 11 rounds to declare a winner, but that number has varied widely over the past decade. In 1997, victory came in the 23rd round.

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