Finding age-appropriate words when writing for children

Writing in general can be a tough business; writing for children is even more difficult. Writing for kids has its own tricks, processes, and rules; one of those rules is to use age appropriate words.

The difference between this and writing in general is that the scope of children’s writing is divided into specific age groups. There are picture books and puzzle stories for very young children. The story line and text are simple; they need to tell a story that includes basic conflict and action, but is geared toward young children’s understanding.

Then come the first readers. Again, the words used and the plot are relatively simple to help the child learn to read. The next genre is chapter books. Here the plot and the words grow just like the child. The story can be more complicated and more geared towards keeping the child’s attention with a slight mystery, suspense, and fantasy.

Then move on to the medium grade. At this point, the child has grown up and has a greater understanding and vocabulary, as are stories for him. The plot and conflict can be more complex than previous chapter books.

Finally, it’s up to young adults. Stories in this genre can be sophisticated and complex enough to attract adult readers. But obviously it still needs to be written avoiding the central themes. While it can cover almost any topic, it should lack explicit adult context. Writing for adults is easier; the writer usually writes with the vocabulary to which he is accustomed.

The question is: How does a writer know which words are specific to a particular age group? Unless you are an experienced writer and have become familiar with the vocabularies of different age groups, you will need help in this area.

Three sources / tools for finding age appropriate words

1. One source that has been very helpful to me is Children’s Writers Word Book, 2nd Edition, by Alijandra Mogilner and Tayopa Mogilner. List specific words that are entered at seven key reading levels (kindergarten through sixth grade). Provides a thesaurus of those words with synonyms, annotated with reading levels. In addition, it offers detailed guidelines for sentence length, word use, and topics at each reading level. I find it a valuable tool in my writing tool belt.

2. Another great source is Intervention Central ( ) that uses Spache and Dale formulas. This is an amazing site that allows you to enter up to 200 words, choose a readability formula (what grade level you are writing for), and click through to see the results. The program, OKAPI (an Internet application for creating curriculum-based assessment reading tests) will return a readability analysis of your text, indicating for which grade level the particular content is appropriate.

3. The next one is ( [] ). This site provides lists of Dolch words (sight words recognizable by frequency and importance) for each grade level. The lists are limited, but give a good indication of appropriate words for the particular age group you are writing for.

These three resources are helpful in finding the right words for the children’s writer. There are also other books and sites available to help you in your search for age appropriate words for your children’s book, just do a search.

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