In national spelling bee, words are the weapon of choice

Adam Ferrari (154), Gloversville, New York, competes in round two of the preliminaries of the 84th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Adam Ferrari (154), Gloversville, New York, competes in round two of the preliminaries of the 84th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Pete Marovich/MCT

OXON HILL, Md. — In a suburban hotel ballroom outside Washington on Wednesday, 275 spellers competed for the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Only 41 would make it to the semifinals and live coverage Thursday on ESPN.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee hosted spellers at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center this year from across the U.S. and the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The competition was created to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage.

This is not a light competition. Spellers have listed tchotchke, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis and weissnichtwo as some of their favorite words.

In the movies and in documentaries, top spellers usually are coached by professional linguistics specialists. But 230 of the spellers competing at the bee were coached by their parents or family members.

Vyji Bharadwaj, mother of Narahari Bharadwaj, speller 236 from Forth Worth, Texas, has been coaching her son and says it's teamwork and discipline that's gotten him this far.

"The main thing he had to focus on was disciplined learning and he had to concentrate on practicing the spelling on a regular basis." Bharadwaj said. "As parents, we have been supporting him, and his sister has been encouraging him."

To be eligible to compete, spellers had to attend a school officially enrolled with the bee, currently be enrolled in the eighth grade or below, must not have earned the legal equivalent to a high school diploma and could not bypass normal school activity to study for the spelling bee. All words and the final spelling of words are from the Webster's Third New International Dictionary.

The competitors' ages range from 8 to 15 years old, and boys and girls were equally represented.

The competition includes such kids as Jack Maglalang, 11, who attends Pershing Elementary School in Orangevale, Calif. Maglalang enjoys taking karate lessons and has earned his black belt in Kenpo karate.

In his free time, Maglalang plays video games, takes piano lessons and takes care of his pet rat, Marshmallow.

Narahari Bharadwaj, 13, attends Harmony Science Academy in Euless, Texas. He speaks four languages and has participated in International Science Olympiad competitions. In his free time, Bharadwaj plays chess, basketball and tennis. He aspires to become a neurosurgeon.

Joseph Daniel Maluyao, 14, of Visalia, Calif., attends Divisadero Middle School and is competing in the bee for the second time. He likes composing music and is a member of his school's jazz band and orchestra. In his free time, Maluyao likes reading.

While each speller enjoys different hobbies, they share one thing: wanting to be the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee champ.

After a written preliminary test earlier in the week, Round 2 began at 8 a.m. Wednesday in the Maryland Ballroom at the Gaylord Hotel, with students taking the stage in the order of their states and cities. Round 3 followed in the afternoon.

Around 11:10 a.m. Bharadwaj stepped onto the stage, standing 10 feet from speller 235 as she spelled her word.

He waited with his hands at his sides, looking down and flitting his shirt with his fingertips. By the time he took the mic, 29 words had been spelled incorrectly.

He gripped the microphone as the announcer said his word: hieroglyphics.

Bharadwaj asked for the etymological meaning, the part of speech and finally the definition.

He bent down slightly to speak into the microphone and spelled h-i-e-r-o-g-l-y-p-h-i-c-s. Then he turned and sat back down.

Bharadwaj admitted later that he was nervous spelling his word, but his participation in the competition was going well.

Maglalang and Maluyao weren't as fortunate. Neither moved on the Thursday's semifinals.

"I'm not really discouraged about my score because it's my first year," Maglalang said Wednesday, adding, "And I'm only 11."

(ESPN will broadcast the Scripps National Spelling Bee live Thursday starting at 10 a.m. EDT.)


Scripps National Spelling Bee results


AIDS at 30: Killer has been tamed, but not conquered

Bad economic news piles up, sending stocks down

Romney to make it official on Thursday, in divided New Hampshire

Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington