Some contestants traced letters on their palms, while other word whizzes in the Scripps National Spelling Bee searched the ceiling for inspiration on Wednesday as they edged closer to the $40,000 top prize.
The youngest-ever competitor, Edith Fuller, who turned 6 on April 22, was among the 259 youths still spelling at midday from a starting field of 291.
"It feels really exciting," Fuller, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, told reporters who asked what it was like to be the youngest speller at the 90th national bee.
Wearing a navy blue dress with a black bow in her wavy blond hair, Fuller said she planned to compete again next year "if I don't win this time."
Her mother said she quizzed her daughter on words up to five times a day but limited each session to 20 minutes.
"She does all the work in her mind," said Annie Fuller, who home-schools her daughter. "The spelling did come as a surprise because we never explicitly tried to teach our children spelling."
Before the lunch break on Wednesday, Edith Fuller successfully spelled the word nyctinasty, which describes the movement of plants, causing the crowd at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center to burst into applause.
Others who also moved on to the next round at the Washington-area resort correctly spelled words such as gneiss, brachiopods and dactylology, while some struck out on the words quokka and toile.
The competition for the spelling specialists, ages 6 to 15, concludes with finals Thursday.
More than 11 million youths competed in earlier spelling bees in all 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories from Puerto Rico to Guam, and several nations, from Jamaica to Japan, contest officials said.
New rules this year are aimed at preventing tie endings like last year's, when joint winners both got $40,000 cash prizes.
Bee officials will administer a Tiebreaker Test to all spellers in the competition at 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) Thursday. It will consist of 12 spelling words, which contestants will handwrite, and 12 multiple-choice vocabulary questions.
If it is mathematically impossible for one champion to emerge through 25 rounds, officials will declare the speller with the highest tiebreaker score the winner. If there is a tie on the test, judges will declare co-champions.