WASHINGTON - No-one has mastered the look of spelling bee despair better than 10-year-old Veronica Penny of Ancaster, Ont.

Her long blond hair was buried deep in her hands each time she was presented with a word Thursday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

She did it three times -- the third time for a full 20 seconds -- while contemplating the word "paleethnology'' in the quarterfinals.

"It looks like she's going to cry,'' said her mother, Pam Penny. "But she's not. She's just thinking.''

The moment of drama had a positive outcome.

Veronica flawlessly spelled the word -- it has to do with the study of early humans -- putting the first-time participant among 45 spellers who advanced into Friday's semifinals, thus earning a spot on national television.

"I'm thinking,'' said Veronica, explaining her unconventional on-stage style. "I was in another spelling bee, and that's what I used when the words got harder.''

The seven advancing Canadians fielded some tough words, including "polysyndeton'' and "keratitis'' to get to the semifinals.

They are: Jessica Zung, 13, of Toronto, Curtis Bogetti, 14, of Kamloops, B.C., Julie Huttemann, 12, of Rossland, B.C., Emilie Lafleur of Saint-Lambert, Que., Anqi Dong, 13, of Saskatoon, Sask., Veronica Penny, 10, of Ancaster, Ont., and Grace Tsai, 14, of Abbotsford, B.C.

Canada had a strong contingent of 22 spellers, and several made their presence known by wearing bright red T-shirts with their country's name in big white letters on the front.

The 81st edition of the bee began early in the day with a record 288 spellers in a competition that has truly hit the big time, inspiring movies, books and a Broadway musical.

ESPN will again broadcast the semifinals, and Friday's two-hour finals will be aired live in prime time on ABC for the third consecutive year.

Also in the semifinals are favourites Tia Thomas and Matthew Evans, a pair of home-schooled 13-year-olds who renewed a friendly but competitive rivalry that began in 2004.

The only five-time repeaters at this year's bee, they've been quizzing each other via computer for months and spent this week trying to stump each other with words from their thick study books.

Matthew and Tia were finalists last year, but another returning finalist, Cody Wang, was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Cody, 14, of Calgary, put both hands to his head and gasped in frustration when he misspelled "hierurgical.''

The two other returning finalists from last year advanced to the semifinals: Kavya Shivashankar, 12, of Olathe, Kansas, and Anqi Dong, 13, of Saskatoon.

No Canadian has ever won the bee.

Thursday began with the preliminary round, when all the spellers who made it to Washington received their one guaranteed moment in the spotlight.

There was the familiar mix of moments comical and nerve-racking as boys and girls aged 8 to 15 tackled words such as "ambuscade'' and "Manhattanese.''

"Can you use it in a song?'' queried 12-year-old Marie Mach of Dumfries, Va., when presented with the word "espousal.''

"You really don't want me to,'' replied pronouncer Jacques Bailly with a chuckle. "I can't sing.''

Marie misspelled the word, guessing "e-s-p-o-w-s-e-l.''

A correct spelling counted as extra credit to a written test all the spellers had taken earlier in the week.

The Top 90 scorers advanced to the quarterfinals.

Sriram Hathwar became the youngest competitor in bee history when he folded his arms and spelled "elicitation.'' Sriram, from Painted Post, N.Y., turned eight last month and appeared about half the size of the speller seated next to him.

Sriram failed to advance past the preliminaries.

While the spellers who survived Thursday's rounds were happy to remain in the running for the title, many expressed an increasingly common sentiment that reflects the bee's popularity.

"I'm glad,'' one said, "to have made it to ESPN.''

Bright and early at 8:03 a.m., 14-year-old James Bailey stepped to the microphone and confidently spelled "magenta,'' and the Scripps National Spelling Bee was underway.

James was the first of a record 288 spellers in the 81st annual bee, an annual contest ostensibly to choose the United States' best young speller.

All contestants got their one guaranteed moment in the spotlight in Thursday's preliminary round.