How do you spell… D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y? We’ve had this conversation more than we care to admit with our kiddos during homeschooling this year. With the return to academics rapidly approaching in whatever capacity, we’re finding the need to head back to basics and invest in a good ole’ fashion dictionary. Sure a Kindle version or an online dictionary will work if you know exactly what you’re trying to look up, but dictionaries are more than just a quick spell check— they’re a vocabulary building tool. (Scrabble dictionary anyone? Yes that IS actually a word!) The extra benefit is the spelling skill they need to actually flip through the pages piecing the correct spelling together, kids today are lacking this skill (hell adults can’t spell either), and this is only being made worse by autocorrect making up words and changing text unbeknownst to our kiddos. At least with a dictionary at hand they can see how ridiculous it is that autocorrect spells it rediculous.
As humans we process visuals faster than we do words, this is also true for kids. Children’s dictionaries partner the traditional set up of a dictionary along with images to help our kids visualize what the definitions actually mean. As kids get older they are more ready for larger editions with less images and more words. Reading through a dictionary designed for kids has been shown to build vocabulary and differentiation in word choice with kids writing. In a world of online instruction where words are thoughts, having access to thousands of words is a recipe for success. Just wait till the Britannica All New Kids’ Encyclopedia comes out for fall!
While Webster’s dictionary remains king, we’ve scoured the internet to find the best age appropriate dictionaries for kids K-12 and beyond, Spanish and English. Bring on the family spelling bee!
Best Dictionary for Early Readers
DK’s Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary is more than just pretty pages (which they are btw with more than 3,000 images), it’s a learning tool with a bonus reference atlas. Bridging the design power of illustrator DK with Merriam-Webster’s mastery of the English language, the result is sure to engage all kiddos young and old. The colorful atlas showcases countries, cities, world flags, and presidents of the United States, all neatly packed together at the end of the massive 960 page book. Ideal for 1st-4th graders, each of the 35,000 words includes notes on spelling and punctuation, as well as examples of how to use it.
One mommy reviewer notes, “My 4th-grader regularly uses this instead of asking Google for the definition. We love the images and just the overall dictionary. On a side note, I’ve noticed that my daughter’s vocabulary is expanding and that she’s reading more often. I do believe much of it has to do with this dictionary and her discovery of new words and an appreciation of words.”
Telling stories is a key component to elementary school writing, and the Storyteller’s Illustrated Dictionary is designed to help our kiddos do just that. Featuring over 1000 storytelling words that are organized into one of six themes – Character, Settings, Taste and Smell, Action, Emotion, and Weather, with 127 storytelling topics. Who knew there were so many ways to tell a good story? Author Mrs. Wordsmith (aka a team of smart and funny writers) has decided to tackle education in a fun and approachable way.
Mrs. Wordsmith says, “If engaged, kids could be learning harder, more relevant words – if only they were made to care. They could be explaining, writing, arguing, and singing as only kids can. We’re the new word learning experts, here to ignite the adventurous word learner inside every child. Our data scientists choose the right word, regardless of age. We know when and how to teach a 6 year-old epic words like “discerning” – words that will make them better readers at any age.”
Winner of both the Mom’s Choice Award and the 2019 Tillywig Brain Child Award, this fun twist on the classic dictionary is sure to both engage and inspire our budding writers.
Best Dictionary for Upper Elementary School
The ultimate goal of owning a kids dictionary of the English language is to get them to use it, right? We all want our kids to be word nerds. The Merriam-Webster Elementary Dictionary is truly next level in moving up the childhood dictionary ladder. Including 36,000 words, it has less images than it’s younger sibling, but still looks and feels like a kids book. Recommended age is 3rd-5th grade, but it’s relevant way longer than that.
Some of our favorite features include history paragraphs so they can learn the stories behind the creation of words, and Greek and Latin word root paragraphs to help with vocabulary and spelling. (Yeah we think we can use this tool too.) Additionally, this version includes quotes from children’s literature to help connect the vocabulary to what kids are actually reading. Amazing!
One reviewer agrees, “This is an essential item all kids should have. This has taught my daughter to do research (by taking initiative to actually look something up, rather than just “Google” it). Some words even have pictures that help illustrate the meaning of the word better. My daughter is 10 years old and has been using it for the last couple months since I bought it for her. I love that the pages have listed on the top corner the beginning and end words/letters for that specific page. She’s now made it a custom of hers to automatically grab her dictionary when she doesn’t understand something, rather than asking.”
Owning a Spanish-English dictionary (or any other language for that matter) that is specifically made for kids can introduce vital language skills at an early age, when kids are most likely to retain it. DK First Picture Dictionary: Spanish includes 2,000 starter words for beginners along with images to help process word meaning. This may look like a book for young kids, but when you’re just learning a new language we’re all on the same page. This helpful homework companion will be useful all the way through middle school and beyond.
One reviewer commented on all the helpful included features, “They include the pronunciation key right next to the word and like I said the illustrations are rich, colorful, and realistic photos. In the back is the English A-z and Spanish A-z dictionary (both are color coded, so they’re easy to find). Also has a Verbs dictionary, as well, along with useful phrases section such as “my name is” or the months of the year, etc. I would highly recommend this to any person, regardless of age, who wants to know some basic Spanish. Wish I had this book in high school.”
Author Jane Solomon knows a thing or two about words since she is a lexicographer by trade (look it up!). Her work, The Dictionary of Difficult Words is big fun in a little book that will thrill and delight both kiddos and mamas alike. Think of it as a new kind of bedtime reading… Solomon acknowledges that kids won’t sit down and read a dictionary cover to cover, but this they will. Including 400 difficult words that are hard to say and spell, this dictionary has the power to turn any moment into a family trivia word game while building vocabulary.
One mama noted, “My kids are not ones to pursue the dictionary, but this book absolutely! It is packed with fun and interesting words with the definitions and fun illustrations to go with them. What is a volcanologist? Exactly what is a kerfuffle? Your kids may come out of this with a better vocabulary than you. The vibrant illustrations in the book are a great way to get kids interested in the different words and make it engaging for young readers. Are your kids going to use all these words in everyday life? No. Are they going to gain an appreciation for a bit more of the english language, yes!” We see a real life Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? happening soon.
Best Dictionary for Middle School
The majority of students start taking a foreign language in middle school and while they think Google translate knows all, we mamas know better. Our Spanish learning kiddos will soon learn to appreciate the Spanish-English dictionary as much as we did traveling abroad when it comes time for homework. Merriam-Webster’s Illustrated Spanish-English Student Dictionary includes 50,000 translations with 1,000 images to aid in language acquisition. Set up with both English to Spanish and Spanish to English translations, this is also an ideal reference tool for bilingual students and students looking to learn English as well.
One reviewer noted the “extras” this dictionary has compared with some others for helping their LO learn Spanish. “This book is very clear, with great definitions. And it’s a much better solution than searching the web for word translations. Rather than just one straight definition, this dictionary offers several definitions, phrases using the word, and context showing where the word might be used. Also, as with all dictionaries, the pages are filled with dozens of words which offer further exploration.”
By middle school our kiddos are expected to read and write with better form than “This is my essay on…” type sentences. This is the time to invest in their first reference set for building and expanding on the English language. Merriam-Webster’s Everyday Language Reference Set includes a 75,000 word dictionary with words appropriate for middle school like frenemy, hashtag, and mash-up, a thesaurus with over 150,000 words, and a vocabulary-builder.
According to Webster, the vocabulary builder is, “especially designed to improve language skills. 250 Greek and Latin roots aid in the learning of 1,200 words plus 2,000 closely related terms. Fact-filled paragraphs, helpful example sentences and quizzes make this volume perfect for students preparing for standardized tests.” We know middle schoolers can’t think past lunch, nevermind thinking about the SATs, but having this handy guide around for the next few years is just what they need to imbed that knowledge. Just don’t tell them we said so…
Best Dictionary for High School & College
This is the gold standard in terms of dictionaries. By the time our kiddos enter high school, images and visual aides to help with understanding are gone, but having an updated serious dictionary of the American English language can’t be undervalued. Whether it’s for writing college admissions essays or simply looking up words in their English assignments, the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is a must have desk-side reference. This new version published in 2020 includes 225,000 words and definitions, including new words from all growing industries, (science, health, technology, etc).
One reviewer commented on the usefulness of this particular version, “This dictionary is extremely well done. It includes loads of examples and references. For almost each word there is one or more sentences to explain the use of the word. Similar words to the one searched are also listed. It’s great for college students who need to write reports and theses. Although nowadays you can use many online dictionaries the paper version of this one is much handier because of the number and the quality of examples.”
Only true dictionary dorks know the origins of the Collins dictionaries (trust us we didn’t either!), but sending our not so LOs off to college or high school Spanish with the original work is a must have for advanced level Spanish. The Collins Spanish Dictionary: Complete and Unabridged was originally published in 1971 and pioneered the approach we have all become accustomed to today in bilingual dictionaries. The cover may seem unappealing, but it’s the content inside that’s the true gem. This is literally a lesson in teaching our kids not to judge a book by its cover.
One reviewer notes, “I’ve bought several Spanish dictionaries and this is the one I turn to the most. It gives shades of meaning so you can be precise in your usage. Excellent beginning notes and supplementary information. This is the only one you need if you’re serious about learning Spanish and need a desk dictionary that will serve you for a lifetime of study.” We just don’t suggest lugging it back and forth to school each day!
Looking for more haves for back to school? Check out our complete mom approved kids gear checklist.