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UMass alums launch fledgling vocabulary building site

Looking to sound like a Rhodes Scholar but don’t want to crack a dictionary?

Two recent University of Massachusetts graduates may have an answer.

Last March, 2004 alum turned Boston engineers James Potter and Nathan Barr launched a website that aims to help improve vocabulary called VerbaLearn.com

The website offers courses designed to help users prepare for the ACT, ESL, GRE and the SAT exams in addition to general courses at reading levels between grades 7 and 12. Students can increase their vocabulary through video and print flashcards, downloadable mp3 files, online games and crossword puzzles.

The idea came from one of the founder’s personal experiences, explained co-founder James Potter.

“My best friend, who was my roommate in college, and I started this company together,” he said.

“He was an engineering major studying for the GRE and found it time consuming to make new note cards everyday,” continued Potter. 

“He started to record his notes on his mp3 player and had the same issue with it,” Potter said.

Co-founder Barr, now an engineer, said in a release that he would be perusing flashcards in the evening but wished he had a way to use the time during his commute to Boston.

“I recorded my voice reading the flashcards aloud,” he said, “that way, I could listen to the same vocabulary flashcards while I drove to work, saving my evenings for more important things, like watching TV,” he joked.

After graduation in 2004, the two decided to create their own company. After mulling over various ideas, Potter’s memory of his friend’s note card nightmare came to mind.

With a plan that didn’t need large financial backing, the two pooled funds and launched the upstart VerbaLearn.com in 2008. After gaining popularity, the website introduced a new version last March.  Currently, the website has 16,000 registered users worldwide.

Potter was not hesitant to discuss his users’ feelings on the site.

“People tend to love the website,” he said.

He explained that with new public relations backing, he hopes the site will see even further success.

“We just recently started our PR campaign, so not that many people have heard of the site, but those who use it send us great feedback,” he explained.

VerbaLearn.com has a Twitter account that offers a different vocabulary word-of-the-day for each of the site’s different tests. In each Tweet, the word, its pronunciation and definition are given, as well as how the word is used in a sentence.

Potter touted the value of utilizing Twitter’s capabilities.

“(Twitter) is a great way to reach a larger market,” he said. “We learned that parents often check Twitter at work during the day and we feel our Twitter account can notify both parents and students about our services,” he went on.  

One of the benefits of VerbaLearn is that users create a study list, from which they learn through online quizzes, games, or virtual flashcards. With each study list, VerbaLearn generates a different set of words to be used each session. After viewing a list of words in their study list, users never see a word they have learned again, allowing users to learn a word and move on.

The website guarantees users it can help improve SAT exam and GRE verbal test scores by 100 points or ACT verbal scores by at least two points, with a money-back guarantee.

For users studying for the GRE, the program promises to teach more than 1000 of the most commonly used vocabulary words on the test. For others who use the site’s courses to learn English through the English as a Second Language program, the website offers both intermediate and advanced levels. The program promises to teach its users 550 words commonly used in newspapers, magazines and discussion used in the workplace, as well.

With the different features come different price tags. One version of the program, VerbaLearn Basic, is free to registered users. The basic version offers a study list builder and a sentence completion game to learn vocabulary content. The most popular version is VerbaLearn Plus, which offers all of the new features such as mp3 study lists playable on iPods and computers and flashcards for $19.95. The company also offers discounted rates to teachers, schools and libraries.

Michelle Williams can be reached at mnwillia@student.umass.edu.

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