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Finding age-appropriate words when writing for kids

Writing in general can be a difficult business; writing for children is even more difficult. Writing for children 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 children’s writing field is divided into specific age groups. There are picture books and scrapbooks for the little ones. The argument and the text are simple; they need to tell a story that includes basic conflict and action, but are geared toward young children’s understanding.

Then comes 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 as the child has. The story can be more complex and more geared towards capturing the child’s attention with a bit of mystery, suspense and fantasy.

Then it goes to the middle grade. At this point, the child has grown and has greater understanding and vocabulary, so the stories should be for him. The plot and conflict may be more complex than previous chapter books.

Finally, it is about young adults. Stories in this genre can be sophisticated and complex enough to attract adult readers. But, obviously, it should still be written avoiding the central theme. While it can cover almost any topic, it must be devoid of explicit adult context. Writing for adults is simpler; 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 are 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 I have found very helpful is Children’s Writers Word Book, 2nd Edition, by Alijandra Mogilner and Tayopa Mogilner. It lists specific words that are introduced at seven key reading levels (kindergarten through sixth grade). It provides a thesaurus of those words with annotations with reading levels. In addition, it offers detailed guidelines for sentence length, word usage, and topics at each reading level. I find it to be a valuable tool in my writing tool belt.

2. Another great source is Intervention Central ( http://www.interventioncentral.org/htmdocs/tools/okapi/okapi.php ) using the Spache and Dale formulas. This is an amazing site that lets you enter up to 200 words, choose a readability formula (what grade level you’re 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 which grade level the particular content is appropriate for.

3. Next is Englishraven.com ( [http://www.englishraven.com] ). This site provides lists of Dolch words (high-frequency words listed by frequency and importance) for each grade level. The lists are limited, but they give a good indication of the 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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