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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

VocabCafe Books Review


College Prep Genius is a company devoted to helping students improve their scores on the SAT.  They offer SAT prep courses and a DVD course called "Master the SAT Class".  Now, they have added a line of fictional books called the VocabCafe series. 

Each VocabCafe book features 300 words "that are specifically chosen to encourage the development of language skills".  The words are used in context in the stories, and the definitions and part of speech (and pronunciation guides) of each word are given on the bottom of the first page on which each word is used.  The end of each chapter contains a review of the words covered, and the back of the book contains an index with all the words listed.  The books are dedicated by the author "To my friend and Savior, Jesus Christ, without whom I could neither create nor be anything", and "these modern novellas contain no foul language, no illicit sexual themes, and no sorcery".

The pros:  My son, who is 14 and a very choosy reader, enjoyed the two books that he read, and was asking to read them all.  Although he has a few years before the SAT, we have been pulling spelling words from the lists contained within the books. The books are short, just about 150 pages, so they are not overwhelming.  And even I have learned some words from these books- I'm fairly certain I've never come across the word "inveiglement" before in my life!

The cons:  I'm going to start this with the acknowledgement that I am probably a bigger prude than most of my readers.  But I made an assumption that the dedication to Jesus at the front of the book and the "no foul language" in the description meant that these books would meet my standards, so I let my son read them without my pre-reading them.  That was a big mistake.  As I started to read I.M. for Murder (which by its very title didn't make me crazy about it, but "Dial M for Murder" is a classic, so I figured the title was a clever take-off from that), I came across a few things that stopped me in my tracks.  
Here are some examples: 
First, one of the "screen names" used while the characters are chatting on a blog is "2Hot4U". 
Second, that same character says, "It s*cks that your girl dissed you."  Except they used the whole word.
Third, 12 pages later, another character says, "That was so freaking cool."
Remember I said that I am a prude, but in my opinion, "s*cks" and freaking both fall in the "foul language" category.  Or at the very least, in the "totally avoidable and you could absolutely tell the story without those words" category.  I feel like those words and that moniker are a sell-out, and I expected better.  To be fair, it should be noted that the Crew was given this statement by the author,

***A WORD ABOUT CONTENT РThese books were written with an intended audience of high school teenagers, although many parents find them appropriate for their middle school or younger students. As a family-based company, our goal is to make a quality product that can be enjoyed by everyone. Thus, these stories contain no magic, sorcery, swear words, illicit situations, nor do they encourage negative behaviors. However, we recommend that parents should read every book that they give their children (not just ours) to make sure the messages coincide with their beliefs and standards. The VocabCafé Book Series does contain boy-girl relationships (non-sexual), mild violence, and mature thematic elements.

Unfortunately, I can't find anywhere on the College Prep Genius site where the public is given the same information! 

The bottom line: No one is more disappointed than I am that these books aren't every bit as wonderful as they could have been. A little less desire to meet the masses where they are, and a little more passion for integrity could have allowed the books to be great SAT vocab boosting tools that also don't compromise on values. But I also realize that there are far worse, totally NOT educational things out there for kid to read.  And I get that I am very conservative, and others may have no trouble with the things I mentioned above that concerned me.  So the best thing you can probably do is check the books out for yourself HERE.
The VocabCafe series retails for $51.80 for all four books, but is currently on special with all four books costing $38.85.  You can order them by following the link above.

To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say, go
HERE.  Some of them had the chance to review the "Master the SAT Class" DVDs instead of the books, so you will want to check that out! Legal Disclaimer:  As a member of the TOS Crew, I received all 4 books in the VocabCafe series so that I could give my honest review.  Those books are the only compensation I received.
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Sweetpeas said...

Wow! Yeah, I wouldn't have been happy about that language either, and can't think how it could possibly be NECESSARY to use such language to teach SAT vocabulary, how sad!

Josh Burk said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to review the VocabCafe Books! Your honest opinion was more than helpful.

We are in the final stages of updating all the books. The newer versions will not contain words like s*ck or freaking. In fact, the screen name 2Hot4U has been changed to Joygrrl2000.

We have also incorporated the disclaimer in the front of all the books, just to encourage parents to read everything for themselves first.

Our goal is to make the best product possible. Thank you for helping us improve!

Molly said...

I appreciate this review so much. I am not willing to use books with this type of content, either. I hope the updated books Josh mentioned will be out soon enough for my oldest student....if not, we will forgo. Thank you for an honest, conservative review!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing out the areas that you had a problem with. While I like the concept of the VocabCafe books, I would have a problem with those things, as well. While I realize that the context of the words you deemed inappropriate was the direct quotes of a teenager or a teenager's choice of words (screenname), the words are, unfortunately, a stark contrast to the intelligent use of language - the SAT vocabulary words - that this book is promoting. I am happy to learn that the books are being updated and will have to inquire as to if they are available yet. I just learned about the books on College Prep Genius website.