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Pupils abuzz with Spelling Bee

Contest's regional heat has children hanging on every word

It's like a sudden-death penalty shoot-out: two opponents placing each other under ever greater pressure. Then, cruelly, a single mistake undoes one side's entire good work at a stroke. Who'd have thought spelling could be so compelling?

The first UK-wide Spelling Bee, run by The Times newspaper, began last month with regional heats. It's inspired by the American tradition of making gawky youngsters prove their lexicographic mettle before a forbidding panel of judges.

The British version is somewhat less frightening: contestants - in the first year of secondary school - work in teams of three and receive constant encouragement from irrepressibly jolly organisers.

There are two parts to this Spelling Bee. In the first, the host asks each contestant in turn to spell a word. There's a warm-up practice word for everyone, but get it wrong after that and you're out. The team with the last boy or girl left standing picks up the most points.

Seven teams are embroiled in a heat at the Odeon Cinema at Glasgow's Springfield Quay, spotlights on them, words getting harder with each round. By round four, all but two of the 21 contestants have slunk back to their seats, some undone by stinkers such as "yachting" and "syllabus", others so eager to blurt out easy words that they slip up.

With two contestants left, it becomes more like a US-style showdown. Anyone who has seen the 2002 documentary Spellbound will know the drill: say the word, spell it, say the word again. Contestants may ask TV presenter host Opal Bonfante for the word's derivation, part of speech, or for it to be repeated. But once you start spelling, there's no margin for error.

The final two contestants are Fiona Findlay, a tall, bashful 12-year-old from Bannerman High in Glasgow, and Gregor Bell, 11, a bundle of energy from Hamilton College. Fiona gets "memento" wrong but Gregor passes up victory by misspelling "abysmal", Fiona sails through "hypocrisy"; Gregor is unsure about "cholera", but gets it right; he rolls his eyes and sways on the spot, the drama prompting "oohhs" from a darkened auditorium. But, after Fiona manages "collage", Gregor forgets an "m" in "accommodation". It's all over and the rapt audience bursts into applause. Fiona later admits it was all "really scary".

The second and final part gives each team two minutes to spell as many words as possible. They can go for "easy" (one point per word), "medium" (two) or "hard" (three).

The team from Motherwell's Dalziel High surmises it can rattle through enough easy words for a good score. They start well, but then it seems to go horribly wrong. The solemnity of the occasion gets too much for 12-year-old Craig Hogg. When he hears "smelt", he cracks.

Soon Craig's giggles have spread to team-mates Graeme Kirkwood and Alice Wylie. Craig has clamped both hands to his face but cannot contain his mirth. They stumble to the end with an impressive 25 points. Minutes later, with the teams in an expectant line, they learn that they've won the whole competition - and the giggles start again.

Cramming thousands of words into little heads might seem at odds with Scottish curricular change, but the teachers present have no qualms. They say the thrill of competition and the pride at doing well - an experience some will never get on the sports pitch - make it worthwhile.

But there are other routes to becoming champion spellers. Graeme and Craig recall being "rubbish" at spelling in primary school. So what suddenly inspired their passion for words? Graeme: "We read for 10 minutes in English before we do work." Craig: "We've got a really good school library."

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