For Khalsa School student Prabhleen Kaur Sandhu, 12, competing on the national stage was extremely nerve-wracking.
“I was so nervous, but I really wanted a medal,” said the Grade 6 student. “I was turning red and blue and all colours.”
Sandhu and her classmates Mehar Kaur Sahota and Harshvir Singh Shergill were in Toronto May 1 facing off against the best spellers in the country at the 28th-annual Spelling Bee of Canada competition.
And for all three, the competition was extremely competitive.
After four rounds of words in the 12- to 14-year-old intermediate category, Sandhu had proven she belonged, not missing a single word.
Then came the word “reassured,” and she nailed it, but for the next competitor, “Leucine” was not so easy and that word eventually eliminated many of the students from the competition.
With only a few competitors left, a young boy in front of Sandhu was asked to spell the word “Astroturf.” Although he spelled the word correctly, he was not given credit. Sandhu then asked the judges, “is that a proper noun?” meaning it needed a capital “A.” She spelled the word again with the upper-case letter and her competitor was eliminated.
Asking a clarification question is a strategy the Khalsa School spelling club coaches – Kylie Morrison and Harbax Kaur Jaswal – had drilled into their students.
“We play a lot of spelling games in the club,” said Morrison. “It’s not overnight, it’s years of hard work. They have all worked so hard, it really comes down to them and all the practicing they do.”
Sandhu eventually misspelled “becquerel,” however she would spell the word “cartouche” correctly to win third place, $1,000 and a trophy.
Classmate Sahota competed in the nine- to 11-year-old age group, junior category, making it to the fourth round with 27 out of 30 competitors still standing, so she knew she was in a tough battle.
Before the competition the students were given a list of 400 words to study, but after the fourth round comes the tie-breaker words – basically the dictionary becomes the list and the words become much tougher.
In the fifth round Sahota correctly spelled “halfpenny,” but the next word was “Guernsey,” an island in the English Channel, and that eliminated 17 students.
The competition rule is if a competitor gets a word wrong then that word gets passed to the next competitor, but as soon as one student gets the word right all those who misspelled the word are eliminated.
For Sahota the competition came down to the 14th round with 10 students still left.
She correctly spelled the word “antics,” but the next challenge was “calmative.” Every student spelled it wrong and when Sahota had her chance to win it all, the coaching and practice kicked in.
“I asked for a clarification and they said it was a type of sedative,” she said. “Some students had spelled it with a ‘comm’ or ‘kom’ but I thought sedative means ‘calm’ so I immediately knew it.”
That was all she needed to win gold, a $1,000 cheque and a giant trophy.
“We all had butterflies,” said school principal Kamalpreet Kaur Baga. “When we won I was screaming, we all had tears in our eyes.”
Classmate Shergill, 8, also performed well, making it to the fifth round, but was eliminated on a tie-breaker.
For English department head and co-coach Jaswal, who was herself a spelling bee champion in 1978, all the credit goes to the students.
“The key for us is knowing the root words and the origin of the words,” she said. “We are constantly using word association and watching news stories to help make word connections.”
Khalsa School is lobbying to have next year’s national spelling bee held at the school’s Old Yale Road campus.