Bright Spots in Home Schooling

August 10, 2007  

Word Wiz

by Cherise Ryan

Twelve-year-old Matthew Evans turned an alphabet-rimmed cereal bowl into a $25,000 college scholarship.

Matthew Evans wins
Homeschooler Matthew Evans won the 2007 Reader’s Digest National Word Power Challenge, earning a $25,000 college scholarship.

What began as a young child’s fascination with letters, culminated this year in Matthew placing first in the Reader’s Digest National Word Power Challenge, winning the $25,000 prize.

At 18 months, Matthew was asking the names and sounds of the letters on his cereal bowl, and he was reading by age 3. In 1st grade, he correctly spelled pole to win the state bee for Christian schools.

When Matthew’s mother, Helen, began homeschooling him in 2nd grade, Matthew began participating in their homeschool group’s spelling bees. He was hooked.

“My mom has been my spelling coach ever since I participated in my first spelling bee,” Matthew says. “She has spent countless hours quizzing me on words and helping me learn them, and she is always on the lookout for new resources for me to study.”

In 3rd grade, the boy from Albuquerque, New Mexico, set a record as the youngest to compete in the New Mexico regional spelling bee, and the following year he became the youngest to win the state competition.

For two years in a row, Matthew made it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee but missed advancing to the third round by one point. Then, in the 2006 National Spelling Bee, he placed 14th and had a renewed determination to do even better in 2007.

That same year, Matthew began advancing in another word competition: the Reader’s Digest National Word Power Challenge. This competition for 6th through 8th graders focuses on definitions, rather then spelling, and is based on the popular column in Reader’s Digest, “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.”

“I have loved words since I was very young, and I have just taken that love to the level of competing in vocabulary and spelling competitions,” says Matthew. “Words are something I’m passionate about.”

To prepare for the Word Power Challenge, Matthew alternated between studying words (6-7 hours a day) and quizzing (1-2 hours in the evening).

The 2007 Word Power Challenge began in fall 2006, with more than two million students from every state, the Virgin Islands, and international Department of Defense Dependents Schools participating. Matthew made it through the homeschool competitions, online state qualifying tests, and state competitions, heading to the National Challenge in Orlando, Florida, in May 2007 with 52 other students.

Al Roker of NBC’s Today Show hosted the national championship at the Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld and Universal Studios.

In the May 14 preliminary rounds, Matthew qualified as a top-ten finalist, gaining a place in the finals and a trip with the other nine finalists to SeaWorld for lunch, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Arctic exhibit, and roller coaster rides. They then went to the Universal Studios back lot to meet Al Roker and see the sound stage where the competition would be filmed the next day.

Out of the 96 words given in the championship, Matthew only missed definitions for three words: frowzy, pemmican, and monomaniacal. He correctly defined all but one of the 56 words during the finals—a record according to Al Roker.

Matthew’s winning word was hegira, meaning “a journey to a better place.”

The adventure didn’t stop there. “My mom and I were flown to New York City that evening, and I was on the Today Show, and Anderson Cooper’s show, AC 360, on CNN the next day,” Matthew says. “We got to tour the city, including a trip to the top of the Empire State Building. Overall, the competition was an amazing experience that I will never forget!”

One week after returning from the Word Power competition, Matthew headed to Washington, D.C., for the 80th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was his fourth time competing at nationals, and this time he placed 6th out of 286 students.

“Being homeschooled has, in my opinion, given me a bit of an edge over all but the most determined and dedicated public schooled kids,” Matthew says. “Every day, I can finish my schoolwork quickly and then spend the rest of the day—6 to 7 hours per day—working on what I’m passionate about: spelling and vocabulary.”

Matthew’s father and 11-year-old sister have also given dedicated support: His father comes to every one of his competitions, and his sister picks up extra chores, even taking some of Matthew’s, so he has more time to study.

“I feel very blessed to have parents who are willing to homeschool my sister and me, and I couldn’t have made it to the point I have in either of these competitions without my incredible family’s love and support,” says Matthew.

Matthew’s media coverage has continued throughout the summer, including an NBC television special and an invitation from a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, to give a 20-minute talk about his experiences to their congregation.

“The media coverage has been really fun,” Matthew says. “I especially enjoy the chance during an interview to tell how the Lord has helped me in the particular competition that I’m discussing. I often think, ‘How could I use this interview as an opportunity to glorify God?’ That is what is important to me.”

Matthew has bigger dreams than being a word celebrity. “I would like to someday be a pastor, and a strong command of the English language helps tremendously with public speaking,” he says. “I have also become comfortable speaking in front of large crowds, so that would definitely be an asset as well.”


 Other Resources

Find out more about the Reader’s Digest National Word Power Challenge at www.rd.com/nwpc