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Teen is busy bee as national event nears
Matthew Zisi of Spotsylvania County loves music, sports, academics--and spelling

 Matthew Zisi won the Regional Spelling Bee and will go to Washington for the Scripps National Spelling Bee on June 4.
ROBERT A. MARTIN/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 5/28/2010

BY LAURA MOYER

The Fredericksburg area's 13-year-old representative to this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee:

Plays piano, plays violin in two youth orchestras, and can't wait till his mom lets him start learning viola.

Loves football, hockey, NASCAR and baseball, and likes to score Orioles games while listening to them on the radio.

Just finished a 796-page biography of Daniel Webster that he checked out as a source for a research paper. The assignment didn't require that he read the whole book, but he did because he found it interesting.

Oh, and Matthew Zisi of Spotsylvania County can spell, too.

Next week he will head to Washington with his parents, Christopher and Jeanine Zisi, and sister, 11-year-old Victoria. The trip is sponsored by The Free Lance-Star, which holds the annual bee to determine which student from the area gets to go to the national bee.

In Washington, Matthew will join 272 other excellent spellers for a week of sightseeing, socializing and competition. The preliminary rounds will be Thursday, June 3, and the televised semifinal and final rounds will be Friday, June 4.

Matthew knows it's tough to survive to Friday's televised rounds; most spellers won't make it past a three-round preliminary in which they spell two words onstage and take a notoriously tough 50-word computerized test.

But he knows, too, just how remarkable an achievement it is to get this far.

He points out that there are fewer National Spelling Bee contestants each year--about 275--than there are Major League Baseball players--about 750.

Matthew, a homeschooled eighth-grader, has always been an enthusiastic, motivated and self-directed learner, his mom said.

When he was a toddler showing signs of interest in reading, his dad got him a "Hooked on Phonics" program. Matthew and his mom would work on it five minutes at a time, then take a break so he could run around and play.

At 3, Matthew read a chapter book, "Detective Dog and the Lost Rabbit," on his own. And soon his parents realized he was staying up past bedtime to read by the night light in his room.

Matthew's still an avid reader for fun, but that's secondary to his studies. Using two standardized homeschool curricula, he sets his own assignments and test schedules, and he works almost entirely without help, Jeanine Zisi said.


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Homeschoolers have a history of succeeding at spelling bees on the national and local levels. In the five years the Fredericksburg area has had a Regional Spelling Bee, two champions have been homeschooled, including this year's winner, Matthew Zisi.

And the Scripps National Spelling Bee has had at least two champions who were homeschooled, as well as many homeschoolers who made it to the final rounds.

ESPN will carry the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals live on Friday, June 3, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. That night 10 "championship finalists" will face off in prime time on ABC, from 8 to 10 p.m.