RHB New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right Challenge: Wordy trials of a spelling bee
COMPILE AND VET: Putting together a word list for the RHB New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right Challenge is a daunting task that requires a dedicated team
YOUNG word nerds may take centre stage during the RHB New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right (SIR) Challenge but the main stars of the show are the words they have to spell.
After all, the point of the competition is to expose Malaysian schoolchildren to a wide vocabulary while finding the best speller among them.
In its first four years, some 57,000 words have been compiled for the SIR Challenge.
The content committee — comprising word compilers and the vetting team — has the monumental task of putting together some 13,000 for this year’s edition which starts this weekend in Pahang and Perak.
The vetting team consists of SIR content committee chairman and chief judge Balan Moses, NST Newspaper-in-Education head Mary Chandapillai, RHB Capital corporate responsibility vice-president Elaine Chin, NST
columnist A. Kathirasen, NiE assistant manager Hazlina Abd Aziz, NiE assistant manager Selvabalan Kuppusamy, NiE programme coordinator Joseph How and Learning Curve editor Faezah Ismail.
The fifth season’s references are the advanced learner’s editions of Oxford, Collins Cobuild and Cambridge; Merriam-Webster Online; and Dictionary.com.
Apart from finding appropriate words, definitions and sentences, the committee has to also ensure that all alternative versions of spelling are included on the list.
Separating the words into primary and secondary categories, and then arranging them into various levels of difficulty within each grouping is a tedious process that requires several rounds of checking.
Over the years, the contest has seen words such as “cacophony”, “propitiate”, “lugubrious”, “obscurantism”, “epidemiology” and “contretemps”.
Those following the contest may have noticed that these, among others, turned up at several state and national battles.
For the first time in its five-year existence, the SIR Challenge is purging some of these familiar words from the SIR catalogue.
“We have decided to retire several words that have been overused or appeared in the newspaper in relation to SIR in the past five years.
“Students have gone beyond the level of these words so they will not be put back in the competition even in the future,” says Balan.
Examples of those that were given the chop are the ones mentioned earlier in this article.
Mary says that some of the words were removed because of their overly difficult pronunciations.
There is more good news for contestants this year — while the words will be challenging, they will not “slay” entrants too early in the contest.
Last year’s “killer words” had taken SIR hopefuls by surprise at the state challenges and rattled even experienced spelling whizzes during the national championships.
Amirul Fitri Zainol Abidin who had hoped to improve on his 2010 third place standing gave up that goal in the preliminary stages of the National Challenge.
“I was gunning for the championship but was discouraged when I realised how hard the words were,” said the SIR veteran who had to settle for fifth spot in season four.
“We’re trying to keep the words at an ‘average difficulty’ level this year.
“Hopefully we will see more students advancing beyond the first round of the contest and really showing what they can do as they go further into the contest,” says Mary, who has been a part of the SIR Challenge since the beginning. But she warns contenders not to expect an easy ride.
Previous years have shown that although luck sometimes played a big part in the state rounds, only the most prepared spellers triumphed at the national championships.
Last year’s nationals were dominated by veterans such as Darren Leong Wei Jin and Kenneth Wu Min Jin who mugged up on the dictionary, noted down words at the state legs and practised with friends and family to ready themselves for the final battle.
Their reading habits stood them in good stead during the competition where they encountered gems such as “soubriquet”, “rhadamanthine” and “alimentotherapy” (Leong); and “succotash”, “darmstadtium” and “triskaidekaphobia” (Wu).
Difficult words need not necessarily be long — sometimes short ones can be just as tricky to spell.
Take, for instance, “eke”, which is pronounced as “eek” and means “to make a small supply of something last longer by using only small amounts of it”.
Homonyms are obvious pitfalls. A homonym is a word that is spelled like another, or pronounced like it, but which has a different meaning.
Contestants must listen carefully to the word given by the presenter — its pronunciation, definition and usage in a sentence — before spelling it.
Mary advises parents and teachers to take an active role in preparing their charges for the SIR stage — word games are fun and can easily be played during mealtimes or incorporated into English lessons.
Moses says participants should not stress themselves out about how they perform and just enjoy the whole experience.
“The SIR Challenge is not only about testing their spelling skills. We also hope to show them the wonderful world of the English language.”