Why do children need a children's dictionary?

Just as you might not give War and Peace to an 8 year old, giving them an adult dictionary, with complex definitions and phonetic symbols, is likely to be difficult to understand. Our children’s dictionaries are compiled specially for children – with age-appropriate entries that are not just abridged versions of our adult dictionaries.

Children will benefit most from a dictionary that:

  • is specially written with an understanding of where they are in their development, and the kind of language they will understand
  • includes terms they will encounter at school that an adult may rarely have to use – like phoneme, or grapheme
  • tailors examples of words to a context children will relate to – children ‘buy’ sweets, they don’t ‘buy’ a house

Recent analysis shows that children and adult often use very different words. For example, the most frequent adjectives used by children include strange, beautiful, safe, and bright, while those used by adults include public, political, social, and economic. And there are of course words in adult dictionaries that would not be appropriate for young readers.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does OUP decide which words to include in their short dictionaries for children?

Oxford University Press dictionaries are compiled by experts, tested by schools, and supported by a corpus database of thousands of examples of writing for children, so we can ensure our dictionaries are perfectly suited to children at different ages.

Our lexicographers have to decide what to include based on the words very young children are most likely need to look to check the spelling (where or wear? cloth or clothe?) or to find out their meaning. This is not based on instinct or sentiment, but on robust research in thousands of schools and a rigorous interrogation of writing for children and by children at different stages in their development. Teachers advise us on the types of words they want dictionaries to provide, from the regular nouns and verbs to a wide variety of rich and interesting vocabulary to develop literacy and deliver the requirements in the curriculum. Lexicographers also use our unique database of children’s fiction (the Oxford Corpus), which contains not only contemporary picture books and novels but classics and even Shakespeare, and helps to make decisions about levelled and age-appropriate content.

In fact, children’s words and language have grown so much that since we first published the Oxford Junior Dictionary and the Oxford School Dictionary in the 1970s, we have significantly increased the number of specialist children’s dictionaries from 2 to 17. That means we can hone in on specific needs and requirements.

How does OUP decide on citations or examples for each ‘headword?’

These are written by our team of highly experienced lexicographers. They read a huge amount of children’s literature and always try to find a usage that is age appropriate and accessible. For example an adult dictionary will probably define ‘borrow’ in the context of money. In a children’s dictionary, one might borrow a toy or a mobile phone.

With the availability of spellcheckers why do children need a dictionary?

A spellchecker is fine if you want to check a word like ‘Tyrannosaurus’ or ‘archaeologist’ but English has many confusable words and homonyms that a spellchecker cannot identify e.g. ‘there’ and ‘their’. Only a dictionary can help with common grammar and punctuation problems too, for example, the correct use of ‘it’s’ and ‘its’.

Why do children need a thesaurus?

A thesaurus can help children develop their vocabulary and help with their creative writing. Teachers and examining boards want children to show evidence of a rich use of words and language, avoiding overuse of common words.

How has children’s language changed over the past thirty years?

As with adults, children’s language has changed considerably. Words drop out of common usage (e.g. lavatory) or change in meaning (mobile). The curriculum (phoneme), technology (internet), increased travel and exposure to global language (cappuccino), are all adding to children’s vocabulary as is their access to diverse children’s fiction and popular culture.

Why is there no online dictionary for children?

Oxford Children’s Dictionaries are available as apps but at the time of writing, parents and teachers appear to prefer their children mostly to develop dictionary skills using print dictionaries.

Does OUP include textspeak in dictionaries for children?

No. Our research shows that most children are aware that textspeak is not appropriate when writing formally and with predictive text and less restrictions to character counts, it seems to be on the decline anyway.

Does OUP include Americanisms in dictionaries for children?

We publish American English and British English Dictionaries. We may occasionally include a commonly used word such as ‘garbage’ or ‘elevator’ but will identify it as a US word.

Does OUP take words out of their children’s dictionaries?

Lexicographers aim to give a balanced coverage of words children will come across at school and at home, and need help with at different stages of their development. Children’s dictionaries are updated regularly in keeping with changing requirements, and revisions and word selections are made based on intensive research and the Oxford Corpus of hundreds of millions of words.

Which is correct ‘ise’ or ‘ize’?

Both are correct. Although more commonly used in the US ‘ize’ is, in fact, based on the English spelling of the 17th century. OUP’s house style is to use ‘ize’.

Does OUP  include ‘rude words’ in dictionaries for children?


How do children use dictionaries?

Children use dictionaries to learn how to look things up; to check spellings and meanings and to check on common grammatical and punctuation errors. We have specific age-appropriate dictionaries on spelling, grammar and punctuation, based on research showing where children commonly have difficulties.

Do dictionaries influence behaviour or culture?

No. They reflect common and current usage and significant changes in the use of language.

How often are dictionaries changed or updated?

We have a rolling programme of publishing new editions and most of our dictionaries are updated between 5-10 years.

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