Spelling his way to victory

It came down to seven letters — e x c l a i m.

It wasn’t the hardest word that Verdugo Woodlands sixth-grader Joshua Choi spelled Monday night, but it sealed his first-place finish at the Glendale Unified district-wide spelling bee.

“He is an incredible student,” said Lisa Haug, one of several Verdugo Woodlands teachers who helped Joshua prepare for the competition, as friends and family crowded around the victor. “He is very hard-working and so conscientious. He always gives 110%, and he has a great attitude.”

The 2011 spelling bee, which included 19 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from each of the district’s elementary schools except Franklin, stretched on for 23 rounds.

“Some of these kids spend months studying for this, and this is really an opportunity for them to shine and show off their talents because spelling is such a unique talent,” said Kelly King, Glendale Unified director of early education and one of three spelling bee judges.

A random lottery determined the order of spellers. Spelling bee rules permit contestants to ask the moderator to re-pronounce the word, provide a definition and use it in a sentence. And the etymology, or the origin, of a word can be given if the language of origin is of significance.

Once a speller begins spelling a word, he or she can stop and start over, according to the rules. But the speller cannot change the letters or the letter sequence when retracing the word. If the contestant changes the order of the letters, he or she is eliminated. If a word is spelled incorrectly, the contestant is eliminated.

When just two spellers remain, the rules change somewhat. If one of the two contestants misses a word, the second contestant must correctly spell the missed word, as well as a new word in order to be named champion.

Monday’s contest drew dozens of supportive teachers and nervous parents who clutched programs and balanced on the edge of their seats as the students took to the microphone one by one. The words, which started with “inquest,” “session” and “joint,” got progressively harder round after round.

Each contestant came with their own style. Some launched into the letters without hesitation. Others silently spelled the words to themselves, or using fingers wrote out the words on laminated name cards strung from their necks.

The contest seemed to reach a stalemate with five spellers left, and then again with three spellers left, as the students went round and round without missing a word.

Joshua correctly spelled “fiduciary,” “xerography” and “effluence” in the final rounds.

“’Effluence’ was kind of hard because it was the double ‘f,’” Joshua said. “I got mixed up with the double ‘f’ and the single ‘f.’”

Finally, his one remaining challenger, Edison sixth-grader Leonid Musheghyan, got caught up on “iridescent.” It was passed on to Joshua, who spelled it correctly, and then finished it off with “exclaim.”

The win was the result of many weeks of hard work, said Joshua’s father, Lawrence Choi.

“We worked so hard with the provided [practice] list, it became tattered,” Lawrence Choi said. “We went through it many times.”

Joshua would wake up early in the morning to study, and would study again when he got home from school, he said. His hard work was driven in part by sibling rivalry.

“My older sister got perfect grades and all these awards,” he said. “I don’t get very good grades. I am an average student, so this is the only way I could beat my sister.”

Joshua took some time to celebrate Monday, but he will soon return to studying. The Verdugo Woodlands student will go on to compete at the regional spelling bee in March.

“We will work even harder,” Lawrence Choi said.

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