Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: VocabCafe Book Series

Do you have a college-bound student? If so, you are likely well aware of the importance of your student doing well on the ACT or SAT in order to receive the best scholarships and gain admission into the top colleges.  You have probably also discovered that some of the prep materials for these exams are a bit dull, and likely not the highlight of your student’s day.  In an effort to minimize boredom, I’m always in search for a more creative approach to SAT study.

When I first heard about the VocabCafe Series books by College Prep Genius, I was very intrigued. I received the complete series, which currently includes four titles, with two more scheduled to be released soon.  The titles that arrived in my review package were: 
  • IM for Murder
  • Operation High school
  • Planet Exile
  • Summer of St Nick

The purpose of the the VocabCafe series is to introduce SAT words within a “modern novella”.  The SAT words are in bold text, with the definition of the words included at the bottom the page.  The books are meant to both expose students to SAT words, as well as save the student time in looking up words in the dictionary. Each book includes about 300 SAT words.

The College Prep Genius website says the following about the content:
VocabCafé books help students easily learn SAT-level words while reading an original wholesome story.
These modern novellas contain no foul language, no illicit sexual themes, and no sorcery!
With one high school student that will soon be starting regular prep for the ACT and SAT, and one middle school student who could use a little boost to his vocabulary, I really liked the idea of these books. However, while a great concept, I wasn’t as thrilled with the execution.

VocabCafe was written with an intended audience of high school teenagers. However, I feel the interest level is well below those needing to prep for the SAT.  The educational value of introducing new SAT words is a bit lost with a more juvenile storyline and quality of writing. On the other hand, while there is no foul language, illicit sexual themes, or sorcery, I wouldn't call them "wholesome", making them more questionable for a younger audience. 

For example, IM Murder, probably the most “dark” of the four titles, is about a serial killer that utilizes the Internet to find naive teenage girl victims. When the main character discovers the murderer’s secret and is involved in protecting a friend, he soon becomes a target. Following several threats, such as the beheading of the family cat, the police get involved and have a plan for capture. After deciding to secretly get involved in the plans to capture the murderer, the main character and his friends visit a weaponry supply, located in a remote area, to purchase weapons as protection. They soon discover the murderer, whom they did not realize is the owner, is in the secluded warehouse. The murderer eventually captures them (with no blood shed, despite open access to swords) and tortures them with a Taser before forcing them to dig their own grave.  They are saved from death just in the knick of time when the police come in for the rescue. IM Murder is pretty tame (no blood, no fatalities, and no traumatized victims) in its description and has sort of a B-rated Hardy Boys feel to it.

The other titles involve terrorists, secretive children, and evil rulers as part of the plot, but are more tame than IM Murder. All of the titles have a happy and all-is-well ending. I did see attempts to hit the wholesome criteria in other titles, e.g. grace before dinner or detailed scenes of church-going, but it seemed a bit intentionally placed in an effort to appeal to a variety of audiences.  I don't shield my kids from mature themes, but I prefer a bit more substance and purpose in doing so than I'm seeing with these titles. 

Exposure to SAT words is definitely accomplished, and I enjoyed learning some new words. The SAT words integrated into the story, clearly bolded on the page, and defined at the bottom of the page are all very nice features.  SAT word usage sometimes seems a bit forced and not quite a fit contextually. Granted, I realize that fitting some of these words, many that aren’t used in normal conversation, was an ambitious task.  There is a fair amount of success, just some miss the mark a bit.

Aside from the content, there are many typos and grammatical errors throughout the books. While I can overlook a few errors (and I hope my readers do the same!), when a single title contains errors in the dozens, I have a harder time ignoring it.

Sadly, while the concept behind the books is fabulous, this book series just isn't a fit for my family. I love the SAT word exposure, but there are too many trade-offs in the delivery for me to give a general glowing recommendation. As each family and student is different, I suggest that you read more reviews from the TOS Crew and explore what others thought.

The VocabCafe book series is available as a set for $38.85, or as individual titles for $12.95. College Prep Genius is also offers a complete SAT prep course on DVD with options to schedule a local session. Visit the College Prep Genius product page for a list of all available products and options.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result of my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew. I was provided the product free of charge in exchange for my honest review. I have received no other compensation. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.


Diane Allen said...

I appreciate how thoroughly you read and evaluate any product based on literature (loosely applied in this case). Thanks for the warning about this particular program.

Josh Burk said...

Hi Heidi,

Thanks so much for your review. We are in the process of thoroughly revising the products. A brand new editor is going through the books to help us remove any typos or grammatical errors. In fact, we are paying extra special attention to make sure all the vocabulary words fit contextually in the story and don't feel "thrown in."

Also, the "Hardy Boys" style of storytelling is very intentional. The goal of these books is to make learning vocabulary less of a chore. They are short, simple, easy-to-read, and hopefully expose students to advanced words in the process.

Again, thank you for your review. Your comments have helped us make this a better product. New revised versions of the books will be out soon!

Josh Burk