In my day, when I didn’t know a word, I had to hunt for it in a big, black, tiny-font dictionary. Of course, kids these days have Chromebooks, iPads and all sorts of other technological devices to help them with spelling, vocab and reading comprehension. They also have an abundance of engaging, colorful, fun and age-appropriate dictionaries made just for them.

“A quality children’s dictionary gives its readers a standard, basic definition of everyday words,” said Lisa Julien-Hayes, head of children’s services at my hometown library, the Swampscott Public Library in Swampscott, Massachusetts, noting that offering an example sentence for each word is also a “key feature” of a quality children’s dictionary.

Julien-Hayes said classic children’s dictionaries are usually geared towards kids between the ages of 8 and 12, or across elementary and middle school. They contain fewer words and definitions than traditional dictionaries and have fewer historical and language references. Kids’ dictionaries are also indexed differently than adult dictionaries, Julien-Hayes said. For example, a children’s dictionary could have a large section for words A-Z, and then may contain helpful reference information like grammar and language guides, numbers and measurement tables and even maps and geographical information.

While certainly all of these things are online, Erin Wilson, a children’s and adult fiction assistant at the Whitby Public Library in Whitby, Ontario, said printed, physical children’s dictionaries teach young readers problem-solving and independence. When they’re reading a book and see a word they don’t know, or if they’re pronouncing something wrong or wondering about the spelling, they can feel empowered to teach themselves by diving into a user-friendly dictionary.

“Many people underestimate children and what they’re capable of understanding,” Wilson said. “If you have an avid reader, having a dictionary nearby will not only increase their vocabulary in the long run but will also help with their enjoyment of the book they’re reading!”

To help you find the best children’s dictionaries for your personal library, Wilson and Julien-Hayes shared their favorites.

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A solid and classic kids’ dictionary descended from the very first American dictionary

Lisa Julien-Hayes of the Swampscott Public Library in Swampscott, Massachusetts, and Erin Wilson of Ontario’s Whitby Public Library both recommend the new edition of the Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary.

“[It’s] more of a traditional dictionary,” Wison said. “It still has simple black-and-white photos and illustrations to break up the text. It also includes some pop-ups with synonyms and word histories for those looking for a little extra. Kids really do love facts!”

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A silly-in-a-good-way illustrated dictionary

As Wilson says, making reading fun is a great way to inspire your little one to grow up loving words and books. For something a little different and way more exciting than any tiny-print boring grownup dictionary, Wilson loves the silly, “Absurd Words.”

“Dictionaries don’t have to be boring!” Wilson said. “This book is full of bright colors, silly illustrations, and some very interesting vocabulary words that could be easily overlooked in a regular dictionary.”

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A pictured-filled dictionary from Scholastic that offers a ton of supplemental reference material

Julien-Hayes also recommended the Scholastic Children’s Dictionary. It’s filled with extra knowledge like maps, county flags, measurement tables and language guides. It’s a great resource for super inquisitive kids that love learning and always want to know more.

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A colorful dictionary punctuated with pretty illustrations

Wilson emphasized that although they may sound interchangeable, illustrated dictionaries are different than picture dictionaries. Picture dictionaries are generally used for kids that can’t read yet, to teach them words, whereas illustrated dictionaries are essentially just good-looking dictionaries.

“Illustrated dictionaries will illustrate certain definitions on the page and make the book more visually appealing,” Wilson said. “[They’re] more familiar to children who are used to reading picture books.”

Wilson recommends the Oxford First Illustrated Dictionary. “The definitions are simple and approachable, and each page has a colorful illustration to keep the kids engaged.”

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A picture dictionary teaching 150 essential words for new or early readers

Picture dictionaries can help younger kids, English-language leaners or kiddos struggling with reading to learn words. “Picture dictionaries are less focused on definitions and more focused on picture/word association,” Wilson said. “A huge part of early literacy is connecting the two — which is why it’s so important to read to your children!”

The librarians didn’t recommend a particular picture dictionary, so we chose Merriam-Webster’s “150 First Words.” It has a ton of 5-star reviews on Amazon, with people calling it an “appropriate everyday realistic book” for teaching sight words to a little one.

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An illustrated dictionary with reading resources

A great “grow with me” dictionary, the Oxford First Dictionary was recommended by Julien-Hayes. It contains learning photos, colors, shapes and more pre-K learning resources, but also has a full A-Z word section as well as spelling and grammar tips and activities.

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A contemporary children’s dictionary featuring of-the-moment vocabulary

Julien-Hayes also recommends the American Heritage Children’s Dictionary. This one contains more contemporary words like “android” and “vegan,” and also features quotes from popular young adult and children’s books showing off the words in sentences.


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