Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Vocab Cafe

I was surprised and pleased last month when I learned I had been chosen to review the Vocab Cafe series of books by College Prep Genius.

College Prep Genius is a company whose goal is to prepare students for college. Part of the concept is to prepare them for college testing by expanding their vocabulary.  The Vocab Cafe books are a series of books that deliver SAT vocabulary words incrementally by working them into a short engaging book with a thrilling plot, all the while subtly defining the new words at the bottom of the page as each new word is introduced.  It sounded like a great concept, and I couldn't wait to get a look at them. The books look well made. The covers are attractively laid out. The books range in length from 132 pages to 222 pages. They require absolutely no teacher preparation. The student can benefit just by reading, and glancing at definitions when the words are unfamiliar, but will benefit more by creating 3"x5" cards of new words to become thoroughly familiar with them. Being books, they can be used for all of your students.

In my perusal of the books I did not detect any particular religious leaning. Some fundamental-type families might shy away from the nature of the

Watching this video, I got totally excited about this program and want more, more, more.  Scoring high on SATs is such a racket! It's just one more test that you have to learn how to take. It doesn't actually test the student's knowledge, but rather has ways in which it tries to trick students into selecting the wrong answer. It is supposed to be a test of "logic", but apparently to a large extent it is a test of how well you prepare for it. I want to help my son be prepared for it.

I was intrigued to learn that College Prep Genius was developed by a mom, Jean Burk, who had formerly home schooled. Her son, Josh, had scored very well on the SATs as a result of her helping him prepare for it. Josh Burk is actually the author of this Vocab Cafe book series. Jean Burk has assisted others in preparing their students for college as well, and in addition to her printed materials she gives seminars to help folks know how to prepare.

When the set of books actually arrived, I was busy, and so they sat.  I decided I would surreptitiously leave them out where my son would see them, in the hopes that he would be curious, pick one up, read, and give me an opinion.  Didn't happen. Review due date drew nearer. I knew it was time to just jump into the reading on my own.

I received four titles for my review: (in order in picture above) Operation High School, I.M. for Murder, The $ummer of $aint Nick, and Planet Exile.  These books are currently priced at $38.85 for the set of four.   I decided to start with I.M. for Murder because it appealed to me. I was also thinking Planet Exile might appeal to my son, so I didn't want to be tying that one up in case he decided to pick it up to read while I was reading. These books are really for 8th through 12th grades, anyway, and my son is only 6th, so I didn't want to push it.

So, working my way into the story I found myself unsettled, unhappy, eneasy, ...grumpy.  This idea of working the SAT words into a story was a great idea. It really was. I just don't feel it was done well.

·       The words were pushed into the sentences in ways that did not seem natural, did not flow, and were not used in ways the words were commonly used.

·       The definitions were not ringing true with my memory; the words were not being defined the way I thought they should be based on my own understanding.

So, I didn't want to just get annoyed over this when maybe I was the one who was wrong, so I started looking them up.  I found my impressions to be correct, and the books to be ...off.  Here are some examples:

The word "jounce".  This word was used in the following sentence: "He stepped behind the court and threw the tennis ball in the air, jouncing it with his racket."  Now, first of all, someone serving in tennis would tend to "loft" or "lob" the ball into the air and then give the ball a whack.  My brain was twitching with the word "jouncing" being used here.  To my memory a "jounce" was a bump, a jolt, which would cause disheveling, like jouncing a stack of papers.  The definition given in the book was, "to move in an up and down manner".  Now my brain was really twitching. Not only was that not the way I thought the word should be defined, but how does "move in an up and down manner"  describe the serve of a ball when hit with a tennis racket?  I certainly couldn't reconcile a tennis ball being it by a tennis racket as being moved in an up and down manner, but further still didn't like the definition, so I looked it up. I found the definition of "jounce" to be: "to move joltingly or roughly up and down, bounce."  I still don't see the tennis ball being jounced by the racket. I see, maybe, bar bells or weights being used improperly, but can't reconcile the use of this word in this sentence above.

So, word after word I read through the lists and was finding fairly consistently:
·       I don't like the way these SAT words are integrated into these stories, and

·    I don't like the definitions that are given for these SAT words in these books.
 ·    In some instances, the story itself didn't even flow right. Like Will finishes playing tennis with his dad (in Phoenix, AZ, where it is hot), and drives straight to work. He walks into work, tells his supervisor he has he clean clothes in the car, then walks back out to his car to get them. He wouldn't have done that -- he would have walked into work with his work clothes in the first place.  I kept thinking, "Who was your editor?" I could have done a better job.

In addition to the issues with the vocabulary words, their usage, and the definitions given, I have some difficulty (as a homeschooler) with the characters in the stories being kids in classroom settings.  I don't personally  expect my son to see "classroom" time until college. So I would have loved it if the stories had been predominantly in non-school settings. Maybe others will disagree, but I think my son will have difficulty relating to stories of notes being passed in class, and I myself find the teacher's reaction to fall outside the realms of believability...


So, I guess this is sounding like I totally hate these books. In truth, that isn't so. I just wish they were different and wish they could be redone.  Personally I plan to go through these books, pen in hand, and adjust the definitions at the bottoms of the pages to match what I find in my dictionary.  Having these books I can discuss with my son, "Does this sound like a good way to use this word? Can you think of a better sentence to use this word in?"

I would love to see these books revised. I would like the vocabulary to be used more correctly, in a way that flows and does not seem stilted, and in a way where it uses the correct meaning. I would like to see the definitions updated to be more accurate. Those would be my recommendations for these books.

I think College Prep Genius is great. I am totally excited to hook up and buy more of their materials, and to use their materials for all four years of high school (maybe even 8th grade) to help my son prepare for college testing. Oh, wait! Did I hear you just ask, "What other materials?"

College Prep Genius also has the following college preparation materials available for sale at their website:

15 Secrets to Free College

 "Co-op Special": College Prep Genius Textbook + College Prep Genius Workbook;

Disclosure: I received a free set of this Vocab Cafe book series in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I received no other compensation (other than the aforementioned), and this page contains my honest opinions.

This has been a TOS Homeschool Crew Review.

To read more reviews of this product, visit the TOG Crew Review page for this product.Throw me a bone! Leave me a comment! I love comments!


  1. Hi Diana,

    Thank you so much for your review. The fact that there exists poor vocabulary usage in our books is completely unacceptable. We have done a complete overhaul of the entire series to ensure that all the words are defined correctly, used appropriately, and included in sentences that point to the definition in context.

    Also, we had a new editor revise the books, so hopefully those irritating errors will be nonexistent in the next printing.

    The new books will be out shortly.

    Thanks again!


  2. You're very welcome! I look forward to seeing the revisions. :)