From the start of the city-wide spelling bee yesterday, Robert Pryor, a fifth grader who stands about 4 feet 5 inches, displayed both an acumen for spelling words and charismatic poise.

The youngest and smallest of 14 contestants, Robert appeared to have the most confidence as he competed before a crowd of about 200 cheering students, teachers and parents in the auditorium of Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest Washington.

Each time he went to the microphone to spell such words as "kaleidoscope," "stanniferous" and "dilettantism," the 9-year-old Hobson Middle School student from Northeast Washington spoke distinctly and shot off each letter with rapid-fire precision. The more difficult the words became, the more quickly he spelled them.

Finally, he won a back-and-forth battle against one-time champion Ronald Benson-El, who placed second yesterday after misspelling "bitumastic." Then Robert spelled "katzenjammer," which means a travesty.

Robert was awarded a trophy, a $500 savings bond, a 32-volume encyclopedia set, a large dictionary for his school and a certificate of achievement signed by School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie. The superintendent watched the event along with school board Vice President Linda Cropp and several other board members and administrators.

The third-place winner was Joy Jones, 12, a seventh-grader who also attends Hobson. Officials said it was the first time in the four years the event has been held that two of the final three winners were from the same school. Students from public, private and parochial schools competed in the contest.

As Robert Pryor was declared the top winner -- the youngest D.C. student to achieve the honor -- his grandfather, who is a minister, and his mother, who was a spelling bee winner as child in Pittsburgh 22 years ago, jumped from their seats. But Robert just stood there on stage, as cool and collected as he had been throughout the 90-minute event, which was televised live on WRC-TV.

Later, Robert who was described by his principal and classmates as "talented," "gifted," "intense" and "quiet," smiled and said, "I feel proud of myself because I won the spelling bee."

He said he memorized hundreds of words in preparation for the spelling bee, sponsored locally by the Washington Informer Newspaper, and knew all 600 words recommended by the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, which sponsors the national contest. Other words from Webster's dictionary also were used.

Robert's competitors accepted defeat gracefully. Even fourth-place winner Meta Jones, 13, who left the stage in tears after misspelling a word, returned smiling brightly.

A seventh-grader at Rabaut Junior High, Jones amused the crowd as she wrestled with her emotions as well as the tough words. Asked to spell "thanatophidia," which means venemous snakes, she backed up in shock and disbelief, as if she had been handed a rattlesnake.

"I'm a very emotional person," she said later. "I was very nervous. I had never heard of that word before . . . . I feel okay now. I'm glad I made it as far as I did and I hope to be back next year.