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The Power of Words

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Vocabulary deficit is a hallmark of poverty, and a major challenge for promising students trying to compete with their more affluent peers. Harlem Academy’s focused instruction guides students to grow their vocabulary, positioning them to access top high schools and colleges. Our last three graduating classes gained an average of 14 points in vocabulary test scores during middle school, putting them in the 96th percentile of the nation.

"We get the students to do the legwork to gain an understanding of these vocabulary words in varied contexts," says Middle School Director Leah Weintraub. "This practice goes beyond rote memorization and pushes students to grasp the nuance between words so they’re able to use them quickly, clearly, and appropriately. We intentionally give students many opportunities to use each word within the program but also throughout their middle school experience, teaching the words thematically to engage their interest, and applying them to their courses, pop culture, and world events. The varied repetition leads to mastery, and they enjoy having the opportunity to show off their knowledge to their classmates."

Widening children’s vocabulary does more than improve test scores. It helps them become stronger readers, which further strengthens every academic skill. It also helps students express themselves directly and accurately. "We think of vocabulary as an extension of reading and writing," Weintraub continues, "but at Harlem Academy it’s just as connected to speaking and listening – engaging in a meaningful conversation about a book or even an advisory challenge."

Sixth-grade students derive informal definitions for the week’s five new vocabulary words

Fifth grader Kely sees the value in studying new words. "Vocabulary helps you understand every subject better," she says. "I remember learning words in our vocabulary lessons that showed up in my history and science classes. I recognize our vocabulary words all the time in independent reading. I hope I never stop learning new words!"


Thank you to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for its support in developing Harlem Academy’s vocabulary program.