Students taking the preliminary written test at Mahkota Hotel in Malacca this year.

TICK-TOCK-TICK-TOCK! After 14 state challenges, the heat is building up as the finale of the country’s premier national spelling bee approaches.

Twenty-eight primary and secondary best spellers will compete in the grand final and only two will be crowned RHB-New Straits Times Spell-It-Right (SIR) Challenge champions on Oct 1.

In its ninth edition, SIR will be held at Connexion@Nexus in Bangsar South City this year.

SIR started off with record numbers sitting the preliminary written test held from April 2-23 in all states and Kuala Lumpur.

After the written tests, from May 13 to Aug 28, the first state challenge was held in Alor Star, Kedah and ended in Kangar, Perlis.

Aimed at gauging the contestant’s spelling competency, the number of participants is almost double last year’s figures, especially for secondary school students. Kelantan had a record high of 2,099 who registered for the written test.

Overall, 8,707 pupils registered for the primary category this year while the secondary category attracted 14,766 participants. Last year, both categories drew 16,825 students.

New faces took part in the state challenges with new state champions crowned. Some 18,717 contestants took part in the primary and secondary categories this year (see table).

Females dominated the 1,400 top spellers from both categories. In the primary category, there were 767 girls and 633 boys while the secondary category saw 765 girls and 635 boys.

Female pupils from Kedah, Perlis and Sarawak recorded the highest percentage in the primary category — 67 per cent, 66 per cent and 93 per cent respectively. In the secondary category, Negri Sembilan recorded 63 per cent; Kedah, 61 per cent; and Sabah, 61 per cent.

CHANGING FORTUNES

This year’s state champions are even in terms of male and female contestants.

The national finals will see seven females and seven males competing in each category.

And age seemed to be just a number as three 9-year-old finalists competed against each other and those older than them.

The three are Maia Faith Leong (Sarawak), Nathaniel Tiew (Penang) and Amar Shah Ghazalee (Terengganu).

Primary Three pupil Maia from St Joseph Private School nailed the word “flagitious” and emerged as champion at the state challenge. Maia said she is all geared up to make her debut appearance at the national challenge.

“I am in high spirits and looking forward to the finals. Being one of the youngest participants is not a disadvantage.

This (spelling competition) doesn’t depend on age,” said Maia, who reads the dictionary as her final preparation.

Nathaniel, on the other hand, said that as a young finalist, he has less experience than older participants.

“I read more books to prepare for the finals. My mum selects words from the dictionary for me to spell,” he added.

His mother Chin Siew Yee just wants him to do his best. She advised: “Don’t worry too much about failures because eventually one will be successful.”

Amar Shah Ghazalee from SK Sultan Sulaiman 2, Trengganu put his finalist placing down to luck as he was surprised that he could spell the winning word “expostulation” correctly.

In the primary category, finalists Jolene Esther Tan, 11, from Perlis and Ng Anna, 12, from Malacca are familiar faces at the competition.

Jolene started competing when she spot in the same category in 2014.

She took part in the primary category when she was in Primary Six and won the state champion title. She also participated in the secondary category in 2013 when she was in Form One. She reached the final round in 2013 and 2015.

Amanda’s teacher Shirley Ho said: “She gained confidence with experience and exposure to difficult words.

She has been reading dictionaries and she can beat Darren at the finals.”

Having taken part in the challenge eight times since primary school, Michelle, from Sekolah Methodist Wesley, Kuala Lumpur was also state champion last year.

She joined Junior SIR in 2008 and SIR in 2010 when she won second was 9. The 2014 northern region Junior SIR champion, she subsequently she took part in the primary category the same year and won fourth placing.

At last year’s state challenge, she was the runner-up.

This year, Jolene aced the words — “abhorrence”, “reprehensible” and “imperturbable”— at the final rounds of the state challenge.

“Her past experiences have helped to broaden her vocabulary and motivated her to read widely, making her more confident in her ability to spell,” said Jolene’s grandfather Tan Kin Thang.

Her preparations include looking up words from the New Straits Times and magazines, spending 30 minutes to an hour daily practising pronunciation and spelling as a run-up to the competition.

“Jolene is looking forward to the national challenge. She wants the experience of pitting against the best spellers in the country,” Tan said.

Anna, from SK Convent Infant Jesus (2), Malacca, defended her title this year as the primary school category state champion. She was state champion as well last year. She went home empty-handed in 2014.

In the secondary category, reigning champ Darren Leong, 17,who first represented Perak at 11, is the contestant to watch out for.

In his first attempt in 2010, he made it to the national finals, winning fourth place. The following year, he was champion in the primary category.

He failed to qualify for the state challenge in 2012 when he first competed in the secondary category.

He returned in2013 at the age of 14, taking back the state champion title, then won second place at the national finals. In 2014, he maintained his position as second prize winner.

“My preparation has been slow, but it is all right... I’ll manage. I go over word lists and my parents test me,” said Darren.

He added that his chances of defending his title are the same as anyone else’s. “It’s a good fight! Off stage we’re all good friends,” he added, when asked about his opponents such as Amanda Ngu Teng Teng, 16, and Michelle Ong Shu Tian, also 16.

It was a walk in the park for Amanda, from SMK St Teresa, Sarawak, who clinched her second state champion title this year after securing the same place at the national challenge. Since then, she has been a participant every year.

Michelle won second and third placing in the state challenge in 2011 and 2013 but crashed out in 2012 and 2014.

“I keep on trying. There is no extra preparation, really... ,” she said.

Though she reached the national finals last year, luck was not on her side. “I was quite stressed out and nervous. I was about to sit the PT3 exam on Monday after the SIR national finals on Saturday.”

GADGETS AND PRIZE MONEY

The Top 100 spellers in each state are divided into 10 batches. To reach the final round, one has to be the contestant with the most number of correct words spelt.

One mistake could end the journey of the speller at this level. Ten finalists will then spell three words in the final round.

The speller who spells the most number of words correctly is declared the champion and represents the state at the national challenge.

At the national challenge, each finalist spells five words in the preliminary round. Only the top five spellers go to the final round, spelling another five words each before a champion is named.

This year, the secondary national champion wins RM8,000 and the primary champion, RM5,000. The top three winners for each category will also get gadgets as prizes.

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