Helping your children build their vocabulary


Increased Vocabulary Leads to Increased

 Success , Enrichment & Opportunity for students


By Mr. Justin Buffer, MSE, Founder, Owner,

and Educational Director of the

Cambridge Learning Center of NJ

“One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die.”  –  Evelyn Waugh


     People often ask me, “Mr. Buffer, how can I help my children become better readers?” Parents ask me this question no matter what the age of their child is. While the obvious standard answer is that reading more will make them better at it, I want to focus on something else here. In addition to reading, just as important is helping young people build their vocabulary. I am not talking here about the traditional ways of teaching reading and studying vocabulary that they have in school where students are given a set of words and their definitions, and have to memorize them for a test. This can he helpful and important, of course, but there are things outside of school that a parent can do to supplement this formal teaching. These techniques can be done on an everyday basis to help children build their vocabulary. Let’s talk about some of them.

     One of the things you can do every time your child hears a new word from conversation, television, radio, or any source and they ask you what it means, instruct them to go look it up. In the old days, this meant going to a dictionary. That still works, but you can also direct them to a smartphone, a computer, or any other modern technology where you can look up words. The important point is to instill in a youngster the desire and knowledge of how to look up words they don’t know.

   Encouraging your child to keep a vocabulary journal is also a great idea. At the Cambridge Learning Center, we give students a Personal Vocabulary Journal for this very reason. We stress that it is not just for the words we teach them at Cambridge, but also for any words they come across from their teachers, friends, or in conversations with adults. We want to make our students aware that they are exposed to new words from all facets of their life and to pounce on them. Keeping the words in their journal and regularly going back to study them is going to increase and refine their vocabulary. As a parent, you can look at this list with them. Help them learn the words and how to use them appropriately. I always encourage parents and students to use the new words together.

As an example, your child comes home and tells you she had fun with her friends at Chucky Cheese. This moment is your opportunity to say, “Well, what word have we learned recently that means fun?” Doing this will help children understand how to use their new words in their proper context.

   If English is not your first language, this can be a challenge. That’s why I’m adding in the component that you can learn new vocabulary words with them. Together, you can both add new words to your vocabulary lists. Whether English is your first language or not, you can play a game together of substituting one word for another. This fun activity encourages using the vocabulary journal at home and everywhere else.

   What else can you do to help them build their vocabulary? Don’t let any word go undiscovered. If they are doing a math problem, and it says, “Jimmy bought 13 pints of Amalaki,” and they don’t know what this fruit is (an Indian gooseberry), have them look it up. Train them that they are always in the learning and vocabulary acquisition process. When you help foster, encourage, and compliment kids on their curiosity, their thirst for knowledge will blossom, and their vocabulary along with it.

   The good part about learning vocabulary is it actually helps someone become a better reader. Research affirms this, as does our experience here at Cambridge. Also, their new vocabulary seeps into writing assignments. I can tell you as an  SAT teacher, and as the Founder, Owner, and Education Director here, that vocabulary is a vital part of reaching the highest scores on the SAT.

As adults, we know that a good vocabulary enhances our stature in the professional world. This is also true for students. Having a command of language helps them when they need to write papers or make presentations.   It makes a positive impression on their teachers. It will also serve the students well when they go out into the world. It will have a positive impact when they interview for after-school jobs, or when they start applying for college.

   I have seen everything I related to you here make a positive influence on students’ futures and lives again and again. With a good vocabulary, reading and writing become easier. Even for adults, I have seen a tremendous difference in their lives when they apply themselves to improving and expanding their vocabulary. Many parents of our students at Cambridge do not speak English. When we encourage them to do what I advocate here with their children, the results are impressive. Both parent and child increase their vocabulary and grow together.

   I cannot stress enough how important a continuously improving vocabulary is. It exemplifies what I call the difference between having potential and living our potential. Somebody can be functioning with a high IQ, which we often see at the learning center. However, when a student’s vocabulary is lacking, he or she will not be able to accomplish as much as they want or can in school, which, as we all know, can have long-term implications.

   An emphasis on vocabulary is surely a key to advancing in school or in life, and we are proud at Cambridge to help students begin their journeys toward growing their personal lexicon.

Studying not testing is the key to SAT/ACT success!


jb speaking







As the owner and founder of Cambridge Learning Center, I’ve come into contact with many parents who are under the impression that in order to better prepare themselves for testing, their children should simply take more practice tests. There’s a belief that being subject to repeated testing – over and over again – will make students perform better.

I’d like to share that this is a mistaken belief. In my experience, the value of repeated “practice testing” is entirely overestimated.

For no form of preparation in advance of testing is as valuable as studying.

If students do not sit down in a sincere pursuit of knowledge, they will never be adequately prepared for testing. Moreover, although practice tests do have their place, and our students take them frequently and regularly here at Cambridge, students will never be able to maximally improve their test performance without assiduously reviewing the mistakes they made during practice.

Why did I make that mistake? What’s the right answer? What do I need to know to avoid repeating what I did wrong last time?

These are the kinds of questions that students should be comfortable with, and they only crop up in the course of genuine study.

Think of it like getting good at playing music. If you just keeping playing the same song over and over again, you probably won’t break through and improve. But if you work with a teacher who can set you on the right path and identify all the weaknesses that have to be addressed, then you’re on your way to improvement.

Likewise, do you think an NFL team can become great just by playing enough games? Of course not. In between those games, during practice, they have to work out their strategies and iron out their issues.

To be sure, a measure of practice testing can have value. But it’s generally not the value some parents expect. Practice testing can be useful for building stamina and reducing the odds of a student’s skills faltering during test time due to fatigue. So being in test mode for a while, as practice, can often help to ready the mind for real testing on some level.

But the students who truly end up excelling on their tests are the ones who buckle down and study. That calls for sitting down and concentrating. It means working with flashcards. It means reading, reviewing, repeating, and refining. We have developed a study plan for this process at Cambridge.

As the old expression goes, “Practice makes perfect.”

But I’d like to add the footnote that it has to be the right kind of practice. When it comes to test preparation, study is good, but testing is not the answer.

Four Improvements to our Educational System


By Mr. Justin Buffer, MSE, Founder, Owner, and Educational Director


As the Founder, Owner, and Educational Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey in North Brunswick, one of the area’s most successful tutoring organizations, people often ask me my opinion on education in America. When doing speaking engagements or interviews, I am often asked what we can do to make public education better in the United States. While I could write a comprehensive book on that subject, I want to talk here about four of many solutions that immediately leap to mind. The topic of public education is very complex, but these four broad themes would quickly point us in a better direction.


Self awareness

Self-Awareness: Number one would be to make students more aware of themselves. They are people with young minds, not a statistic that goes through the school system until successfully graduating. It is such a cliché, but they are our future. When I am saying self-aware, I mean they have to understand their own emotions. They need to have insight on why they do the things that they do and their motivation. Individuals who comprehend these concepts are better equipped to handle life. Sometimes we need to back away from the books and computers and help students in their maturity and personal development process.   This is often called “EQ” or “Emotional Intelligence” in the world of popular psychology.


How to think critically and constructively: Second, we need to teach our young people how to think. A great deal of schooling is preparing these kids for tests, whether for a particular class or the various standardized versions. Too often, this means having them learn facts or formulas without any practical application or context.   While rote memorization surely does have a role to play in the learning process, by training students to think through a situation or problem, they are going to be better equipped to avoid tripping over obstacles in their future.

A simple illustration of this is how we teach history, politics, and government, which I did for many years in a public school classroom and now here at Cambridge. You can see by the state of the country that many Americans do not really comprehend how our government operates. Often, classes related to this subject score lowest on a student’s interest. The conventional way of teaching them is to do readings and lectures starting with 1776 and working their way to the present. If a history class is lucky, it might actually reach the twenty-first century by the end of the term. Rather than such a linear approach, let’s shake things up in an interesting manner. Usually, a common segment of history is teaching about great American inventions. Show the class an iPhone. Actually, since most of the students have a smartphone of some type, have them take it out and place on the desk. Talk about all the wonderful things it does and then work backward on the various incarnations of the telephone for the last 150 years until you get to Alexander Graham Bell. This tactic will help them appreciate and remember the phone’s development and possibly develop a deeper sense of gratitude for those who came before us. A teacher can use this same technique in explaining how the three branches of government operate. Make it pertinent!

Writing Skills

Writing skills enrichment across the board: A third item we need to address in schools is writing. Communication is so important in this day and age. It is imperative that students know how to write naturally and correctly. You rarely can boil down a complex issue into 140 characters. Teachers of all subjects need to work with their students on their writing ability. If a science teacher asks for a report, for example, then he or she should also be correcting and coaching the student on the writing itself, as well as the content. Another option is to have writing specialists in schools read what students compose for all their subjects and provide the insight for becoming a better writer. I have a friend who is an editor, and he cringes at the state of people’s writing in academia and business. He doesn’t understand how leaders in business or people with college and advanced degrees are able to effectively function with their writing ability. The only way a student will improve is to receive constant constructive feedback on how they write. It needs to be a focus in school for the good of our country.


Learning Gaps

Filling in learning gaps/unifying the curriculum: Last, but just as important, is that educators have to realize there are gaps in their curriculum. Standardized tests matter so much in determining a student’s and a school’s future. It is impossible for a student in Wyoming to learn exactly the same thing as a student in California or in New Jersey and vice-versa. Learning centers like Cambridge and others fill in these gaps. School districts have to acknowledge this situation and then seek out and work with those entities to prepare the student for their future.

After all, isn’t that what education is about? We are not looking just to have students graduate high school and move on. We want them to be prepared for the adult phase of their life. That is how we truly rate the fruits of education – with young people successfully moving on to higher levels of learning and/or to their careers.


Our educational system is truly the DNA that will determine the qualitative nature of our country’s future.   We must not just “invest” money in this vital component of our culture but also time, energy, and effort to implement new ideas to help us continue to be the thought leader of the free world.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests

Mr. Buffer (NJ Licensed Teacher), the Founder, Owner, and Educational Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey,  was recently asked by a group of parents at a lecture what the most important things to know about the SAT Subject Tests were.     So, he decided to synthesize his remarks, based on and combined with answers to the most frequently asked questions he receives, into 8 major points below:


  1.  SAT Subject Tests are also called the “SAT 2”  Tests.  They are 1 hour each, typically composed of about 60 questions each.

  2.  SAT Subject Tests (SAT 2 Tests)  cannot be taken on the same test date as the regular SAT (known  as the SAT 1).

  3.  A student can take up to 3 subject tests on 1 test date.

  4.  The SAT Subject Tests are given in most major areas including Biology (Environmental and Molecular), Chemistry, Math I , Math II (PreCalculus and Trigonometry),  Spanish, French, Chinese,  Italian, German, Latin, U.S. History,  World History, Physics, and many of the foreign language tests listed also offer a Listening Section.

  5.  The SAT Subject Tests are not officially required for entrance to the vast majority of colleges, but some universities do require certain SAT Subject Tests to be considered for particular programs.  For example, many 7-year Medical programs do require the SAT Chemistry or SAT Biology (Molecular) test, and possibly a Math subject test.

  6.  Even though many schools do not require students to take these tests to be considered for Admission, great scores on these can be a very effective tool to help students make themselves more distinct amongst other applicants.   Mr. Buffer often tells parents the truth he has seen play out repeatedly that the Subject Tests can be the “Tie-breakers” between two students with equal GPAs, SAT Scores, and other indicators of high achievement. 

  7.  SAT Subject Tests are given all-year-round, when the regular SAT is offered, except for March.

  8.  School learning is not often enough to fully prepare students for a Subject Test because the content in school is not fully comprehensive.    Mr. Buffer often explains that the SAT Subject Test is a nationally-given test, which means the composition of the test is the same across the 50 states, but each state has its own curriculum.  So, inevitably, there will be necessary learning material omitted from a student’s education, or possibly not covered as in depth as is optimal for a stellar performance on the Subject Test.   This is why Cambridge Learning Center has become so successful at preparing students for these tests, because we teach the material that students don’t yet know, often unbeknownst to them.

Preparing Middle-School Students Long term for the SAT and ACT

The following article was adapted from a recent interview with Mr. Buffer about how to prepare middle school students for the SAT and ACT.



Question for Mr. Buffer:

What can I do to help my middle school student prepare long-term for the SAT and ACT?

Mr. Buffer:

That’s a good question. And I feel to answer it fully, I have to give some relevant background information.

One thing we have to remember is that when students take the SAT and ACT it is assumed that they know or have learned certain things. The tests are not meant to throw material at them that they weren’t supposed to have learned in high school. People often think it’s intended to be a special test that’s separate from what students are learning in school. Often, it is experienced just that way because learning across the nation, even across states, is not pedagogically or curricular unified. One major problem, for example, is that most high schools can’t cover, in depth, every bit of math that students are supposed to learn. They can’t cover every grammatical concept to the level they should, with students learning imperative, specific, and necessary vernacular, either. They might cursorily go over this required curriculum in middle school or even high school, but there is no time for students to learn everything as thoroughly as is needed to be fully prepared for what is to come in their future, high-stakes standardized tests. This impasse is where, I feel, our learning center has been so helpful because we have helped to fill in these gaps. Having worked and taught in the public schools, having a Masters Degree in Educational Theory and Practice, and founding, owning and directing, the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, I am keenly aware of what students are often not getting and learning in school.

Additionally, students go to very different high schools. Some high schools are more rigorous than others in the books they read. Some high schools are much less stringent than others in the books they read. Because this is so varied across schools, and even in individual classrooms, and the level of exposure to different material is so varied for middle school and high school students, not all students come prepared equally for the test. Or, they are part of an education system that is not super rigorous or where they aren’t urged to read a lot of nonfiction books, or maybe the particular teacher the student has isn’t inclined to want to read certain kinds of material because they as educators don’t have a strong preference for it.

So, not every student gets the same education all the time. Some students, many who are highly performing in schools, are often shocked when they come here (to Cambridge) for enrichment and for SAT/ACT prep, how much they don’t know. For instance, when a high school student goes to take the SAT Math II subject test, it is assumed that they have comprehensively learned laws of sines and cosines. Some high schools don’t cover trigonometry as well as others do, though, so we often find ourselves filling in many learning gaps on such topics.

So, now that I have given you some valuable background information, we will get to your core question of: “What can middle school students’ parents do to prepare long-term for the SAT and ACT?” Here are some ideas parents can keep in mind and start to integrate, and in our next segment I will expand upon these further:

Reading Varied Material: First, urge your child to be reading varied material. They can read grade-appropriate fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biographies, and science books. Many parents do not advise their children to read outside of the child’s comfort zone. Don’t be complacent with this! Push them into their discomfort zones! It is not always best for students to get comfortable with one kind of genre because when it comes time for the SAT/ACT they will have to be used to reading multiple types of material. I think the Harry Potter series and other series are great, for instance, but students can get so hooked on particular content or styles of writing, that it can hinder their academic and personal growth, including language and vocabulary acquisition.
I have seen many students held back because of their not varying their reading, thus keeping them lacking in important foundational knowledge. At Cambridge, we vigorously strive, in my Reading Program, to regularly diversify students’ reading exposure as part of our Reading Program.

Newspaper Reading: I also recommend middle-school students begin to read a local paper daily, if possible. This practice can be a very helpful way of them not just being informed but also learning new vocabulary and interesting facts regularly. Additionally, students should strive to read some op-ed articles that are at their reading level, in addition to news stories. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey is an excellent choice for this activity. This student practice can also be a great impetus for family discussions.

Summer Upkeep, Maintenance, and Foundational Strengthening: It is an unfortunate fact that just because students were promoted to the next grade level, it doesn’t mean they fully learned the material. Students, whether on vacation or at home, should study and review their learning from the previous school year, and if possible get summer tutoring help to plug needed holes in fundamentals understanding. At Cambridge, our Pro-Active Summer Program helps with this, but even if students can’t attend this, I always urge parents to get them review materials and to have them regularly study and review. Unfortunately, if students are moved on to the next grade level without fundamentals correction, the adverse effects can be cumulative and will affect their high school and SAT/ACT performance, and thus these students’ futures.

Implementing this tip each summer, though, will help students be more prepared for the SAT and ACT by keeping their Reading, Writing, and Math skills sharp.

In closing, let me just remind you that the SAT and ACT tests are assuming students will have learned certain things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is so. Varied reading and bringing them for enrichment outside of school to mitigate the effects of overcrowded classrooms can be very helpful. Whether fair or not, the SAT and ACT are important parts of the college admissions process and integrating these tips and other helpful advice will help prepare students for their future.