By Ian Simpson
OXON HILL, Md. (Reuters) - The Scripps National Spelling Bee got under way on Wednesday with some of the 285 contestants vying for the title and $35,000 in prizes happy to get easy words in the starting round.
After preliminary rounds, the finals on Thursday night will be televised by ESPN. The winner receives $35,000, savings bonds and other prizes.
Spellers in the 88th annual bee range in age from nine to 15 and are the cream of more than 11 million hopefuls who took part in local contests. They come from eight countries and all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and Defense Department schools.
The first speller out was Kelvin Winney, a 10-year-old fifth-grader from Chinle, Arizona. He stumbled on "malihini," a Hawaiian word for foreigner.
Sitting next to his mother, Nora McKerry, Kelvin, a first-time contestant, vowed to study harder for next year. Asked how others would feel when they were forced out, he said: "They're probably going to feel the same way I do - disappointed."
Some of the spellers were visibly relieved to get words they thought were easy. Fifth-grader Dylan Hembrough, 11, from Sherman, Illinois, chuckled when given "llama" by pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly, and aced it.
Many contestants wrote out the letters of words on their hands or forearms before stepping up to the microphone to spell. Kassie McKnight, 14, an eighth-grader from Bolivar, Missouri, exclaimed "Yay!" after correctly spelling "zenith."
Eleven semifinalists are returning this year. They include Vanya Shivashankar, an Olathe, Kansas, eighth-grader, who is returning for her fifth time after placing as high as fifth, and St. Louis eighth-grader Gokul Venkatachalam, who placed third last year.
The contest includes multiple choice tests of spelling and vocabulary. The performance on the test is combined with onstage spelling performance to determine who goes on to the semifinals and finals.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Doina Chiacu)