Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Vocabulary Facilitation (Vocab Made Easy!)

To prepare for an AP English class, I was assigned a vocabulary book to complete during the summer before my senior year of high school (many, many, oh so many years ago).  To my knowledge, I am the only dork who actually completed the assignment!  But, actually, I enjoyed doing the lessons and playing with the words.  For one chapter, I recall writing a poem about a fairy who "liked all things incendiary," as a way to help me remember what I was learning.  Josh and Judah Burk, of  College-Prep Genius fame, have taken my little idea and run with it.  They have written whole novels around their SAT vocabulary lists!

Josh explains:
"When I was a student (preparing for the awful SATs), I did a lot of reading to improve my vocabulary.  I learned a lot of great words through the process of looking up every unfamiliar word, but it was often extremely tedious.  Some of the best books had me pulling out the dictionary several times a sentence!  This often sucked the fun out of reading and made learning vocabulary a chore.  The VocabCafé Book Series tries to remedy this by keeping the power of learning through context while relieving the annoyance of dictionary interruptions!"
You may know that the Burks earned full ride scholarships based on their SAT scores and all the many hours of practice they put in on them.  So, their advice about learning vocabulary is definitely of great value!

So far, the VocabCafé series holds four books:

  1. Planet Exile (science fiction)
  2. The Summer of Saint Nick ("realistic" fiction)
  3. I.M. for Murder (murder mystery adventure) and 
  4. Operation Highschool (spy adventure)
The first three were written by Josh Burk and the last one by Judah Burk.  Two more are planned for release later this year.  Though the vocab review idea is a series, the books are not a series in the sense of sharing characters or events.  Each novel stands alone and they are all quite different.  You can find descriptions of each plot here.

On the positive side:

In general, the main characters are nice kids, they love their parents and try to do good.  Though not overtly Christian, characters mention God, say grace, and go to church.  There is a lesson or several lessons that are well-stated and embedded within each novel.  
The interaction between the main characters in I.M. for Murder is well done.  I love the description of the game the boys play when they throw all the patio furniture into the pool and then go searching for "buried treasure."  The author really captured how spirited boys play and while I, as a woman/mom, would fear for their safety, I still could appreciate that that is how it is!  
Obviously, the biggest selling point about these books is that they expose your child to new vocabulary words.  At first, it is a bit shocking to encounter "plebiscite" in the middle of a regular sentence (kind of like Spanglish), but that is probably a good thing because it draws your attention.  The words are bolded and italicized and their definitions are on the bottom of the page where they are found, like I have done with a few words in green on this blog page.  At the end of each chapter, there is a summary page of the words to review for that chapter.  There is also a glossary in the back of the book, listing all 300+ words and their definitions.  
On the negative side:

Often consequences do not follow actions.  Teens lie, sneak out of their houses in the middle of the night,  pull pranks, and commit arson without being caught.  Even good behavior, like giving away over $200,000 to charity, is not really rewarded.  Although this is very realistic in the sense that we aren't always caught or rewarded (here on earth), it gives the reader a sense of loose ends.

Though there were no swear words, some of the slang used was a little too hip for me.  "Freaking" is used as an adjective (the origin of that word is a euphemism for something I consider to be a swear word) and there is a "screw that."  But, those occurrences are rare and that is pretty realistic for how kids talk today, so that is up to your personal preference.  The back cover of Summer of Saint Nick mentions "the hottest girl in school," but the insides of the book do not reflect that kind of language or attitude towards girls.

Some of the teen activities give me, as a parent, the willies.  In Operation High School, the front cover and the first chapter had me wondering if this book was going to be about the occult (late at night, circle of candles, blindfolded, etc.).  Although that fear was unfounded, there were hazing type activities (tying up a  blindfolded girl and leaving her alone out in the woods to find her way to a mysterious location) that I hope will never be imitated by readers.  I liked, in I.M. for Murder, that the teens would discuss the fact that they were "stepping over a moral boundary" before they did it, at least giving the reader the knowledge that this was wrong.  However, part of what they were doing wrong was using the internet to lure a pedophile/murderer into the open -- a dangerous game, to say the least.

At times, the omniscience of the 3rd person narrator is jarring.  For the first half the book, you have been in the head of the main character, but suddenly, and without warning, you jump into someone else's head and know all his thoughts and motivations.  

There are slight editing issues in several of the books that aren't too troubling.  But, Operation High School has a plethora of errors that will set an English teacher's, and maybe even your student's, teeth on edge.
Some of the themes are definitely better reserved for older teens and adults.  There is a situation (already referred to) with a pedophile/murderer, some violence, decapitation of a cat, dating/kissing (very mild), and the like.  I like that Josh Burk is up front with this stuff.  He says:
"***A WORD ABOUT CONTENT – These 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."
I did not have a problem with my daughter reading this series, but told her to use her best judgement as she went along (she read them first).  She opted to skim I.M. for Murder and to skip Operation High School.  She was more comfortable with the other two books which seemed aimed at a younger audience.  In fact, I would say there is a big separation between the books.  I think Planet Exile and The Summer of Saint Nick are fine reading for middle-schoolers, but I would be leery of I.M. For Murder and Operation High School until late high school -- and I would definitely suggest you read them first to make sure you find them acceptable for your family.

The authors are good writers, but they are also young neophytes.  I can see real improvement in their writing as the books progress, so given the chance, I think they will continue to get better.

The VocabCafé books sell individually for $12.95 or as a set of 4 for $28.85.  College-Prep Genius offers many other ways to prepare for SAT testing, including prep classes, workbooks and DVDs.

Dork /dork/ N - social misfit; geek
Vocabulary /vō-kab-yə-lerē/ N - body of words
Positive /päz-ə-tiv/ N - good quality

Hazing /ha-zing/ V - force to perform strenuous, humiliating, or dangerous tasks
Plethora /ple-thərə/ N - an excess of

As part of The Old Schoolhouse Homeschool Crew, I was provided this series of 4 books free in exchange for an honest review.  For more TOS reviews, click here.


  1. Love how you incorporated the vocabulary words into your review! Nice ;)

  2. Great review! I loved your insertion of "vocabulary words" into it!

  3. What a fun review!!!! I like your vernacular!

  4. Hi Colleen,

    Thanks so much for your review. It was very informative and definitely helped us in the process of revising. We hired an additional editor to give all our manuscripts a good clean sweep of editing and grammar errors.

    We also removed some of the "hip" lingo to make it more suitable for younger readers. We even changed the end of Summer of Saint Nick a bit, just so students aren't left with the "loose ends" feeling.

    We should have new versions released very soon!