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Casting a spell: Chinese-Canadian boy takes first

AFTER more than 5,000 children competed to be China's best junior speller, it came down to one word.

The winner, 12-year-old Jacky Qiao from Beijing, took his time on Saturday spelling "heliolatry."

The championship word, meaning sun worship, was worth 5,000 yuan (US$731) and an all-expenses-paid trip to the United States for the finals of the world's biggest English-language junior spelling bee.

This is the first time China has sent a contestant to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, an educational icon for eight decades.

Qiao is a Chinese-Canadian seventh grader from Beijing International Singaporean School.

He will be the first student to represent China in the big bee.

Saturday's China final held in the Shanghai Center was run by the Community Center Shanghai and was the culmination of two rounds of competitions over four weeks, involving 16 schools in Shanghai and Beijing.

Holding his trophy aloft, Qiao says he actually guessed at the victorious spelling, but had recognized the Greek origin of the word for sun, helios.

The spelling bee in China aims to help students gain lifelong skills in English usage by improving their spelling, increasing their vocabularies, learning concepts and developing correct usage.

On May 29, Qiao will represent China in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. The worldwide competition attracts contestants from 278 countries and involves more than 12 million middle school students between grades six and eight.

More than US$60,000 will be awarded in prize money.

The champion speller gets the chance visit the White House and meet US President Barack Obama.

The first China runner-up is Shanghai American School student Catherine Li. The seventh grader at the school's Puxi campus correctly spelled the word "pneumonia."

Beijing's dominance continued, with third place going to June-ho Yeo, 10, of Yew Chung International School.

A notable achievement was Chinese student Wu Yishan from Shanghai gaining fourth place, competing in his second language. He attends Pudong Foreign Language School.

The victorious Qiao, a Canadian-born Chinese, says it took him just two days to memorize the 1,200 words in the spelling companion handed out to contestants.

The avid wordsmith studied for about three weeks, drilling himself using the computer program "I Spell" six times a week for one and a half hours a day.

Head judge of Saturday's spelling bee, Elyn MacInnis, says the panel quickly realized that many of the top students had memorized the entire 1,200-word booklet. Thus, they had to look for more challenging words to split the top competitors.

Saying he wanted to become a computer programmer, Qiao says he hopes to meet President Obama in the United States.

During his week-long trip, Qiao will compete in the Washington, DC, spelling bee, seeking to represent China in the nationally televised event on May 29. He will also take part in "Bee Week" activities.

Qiao's mother, Helen Wang, says he's a bright student with a good memory.

"He is good at mathematics and music and he has a good memory for numbers and characters," says the proud mom who will accompany him to the US.

Last year the Community Center Shanghai (CCS) received approval to compete from E.W. Scripps, the company that runs the Spelling Bee dating back to 1925.

The center kicked off the 16-school competition in early February when almost 5,000 students took a 25-word written test formulated especially for the China region by Scripps.

In late February, a 250-word school competition was held; champions progressed to the finals in the Shanghai Center on Saturday.

The first runner-up won 500 yuan in cash; the second runner-up took 300 yuan.

Through sponsors, CCS was able to provide a 5,000-yuan cash prize for both the winner and the runner-up and a 2,900-yuan gift certificate to the Children's Technology Workshop. The third-place winner received 3,000 yuan and a 1,500-yuan gift certificate.

The event was a chance to help "bridge the gap between China and the world," says Stella Si, marketing director of Community Center Shanghai.

"The Spelling Bee started with a dream to allow students from Chinese regional schools to participate in such an international competition," she told more than 300 students, parents and supporters on Saturday. "We also dream that one day, the champion of the final USA Bee will come from China."

This is the 82nd year of the Spelling Bee and during that time only two winners were not students from the continental United States.

The 1975 champion, Hugh Tosteson, was from the US territory of Puerto Rico and the 1998 champion, Jody-Anne Maxwell, represented Jamaica.

Entry to 16-school competition was decided by invitation, but Si says the aim is to include more schools from across China. Schools in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, and Chengdu, Sichuan Province, have expressed interest, she says.

Si says more Shanghai schools are expected to compete next year.


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