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Five from the area look to be last speller standing

Buzz builds for national bee.

Sowsan Salaam is 12, a sweet girl with braces and a wide smile.

The sixth grader at Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander-University of Pennsylvania Partnership School in West Philadelphia is also a really, really good speller.

So good, in fact, that words like ubiquitous and chagrin don't even make her blink.

So good that she's in Washington today to go head-to-head with 292 of the nation's best in the hotly contested Scripps National Spelling Bee. She is one of five from the region vying for the top title.

The bee begins today, with a national champ scheduled to be crowned before a national television audience Thursday.

"I'm not nervous," Sowsan said. "I'm only excited."

To prepare, Sowsan spent two hours daily working her way through a thick stack of flash cards, spelling "the most unusual words known to man," said her mom, Hafeezah Salaam. She wrote each word five times, "so I learn it."

Sowsan has long preferred books to toys. One day just after she turned 3, her mother showed her a few flash cards with pictures and the names of colors. By the end of the day, the fascinated toddler was spelling all the words out loud.

"I was just blown away," said Hafeezah Salaam, a nurse who made the trip to Washington with her daughter. "I guess I should have known then."

The region's top spellers are an impressive group.

There is Audrey Liu of the Hartford School in Mount Laurel, a sixth-grade math whiz who dreams of being an actress or director. There is Emily Fletcher, a seventh grader at St. Anthony-St. Joseph School in Ambler, who is writing a novel.

Neel Mehta, a seventh grader at the Arcola Intermediate School in Eagleville, blogs about the environment and earns science fair prizes when he is not spelling. Paro Sen, a seventh grader at the Avon Grove Charter School in Avondale, is working toward her black belt in karate and loves punk music.

All of the star spellers earned the right to go to Washington by virtue of wins at regional bees.

Sowsan nearly earned a trip to nationals last year, as a fifth grader. But she lost to another Penn Alexander student in last year's regional bee.

Sheila Snydor, principal of the public school, is proud of her dynasty - three Penn Alexander spellers have gone to nationals on her watch.

What is the school's secret?

"We have spelling built into the curriculum," Snydor said. "We have a word of the day, and that sticks."

Students can opt for a spelling elective, and two literacy teachers serve as sponsors of the popular class. The whole staff, in fact, helped create 3-by-5 study cards to help Sowsan prepare, and the school community held a pancake breakfast to help her with Washington spending money.

The two sponsors are even heading to Washington to help their speller prepare. Snydor is not worried that Sowsan will lose her concentration, though.

"She is very reserved, even during the regionals," Snydor said. "We were in the audience, having a fit, sweating it out. But she was just as cool as a cucumber."

And though the Salaams say winning the bee is not the point - that the experience of getting to nationals is gift enough - some might say the region is due to produce a top speller.

Norristown came through in 1954, with William Cashore, who won on transept, and Mullica Hill gave us champ Jonathan Knisely in 1974. (Shalloon.)

In 2006, New Jersey's Kerry Close took the title, but she is from Asbury Park, and probably a Giants fan.