Cover for blog post Children's Books to Build Vocabulary. Shows six children's books.

Children’s Books to Build Vocabulary

It is often said that if children read a lot, then they will build large vocabularies.  While this is generally true, not all children’s books are created equal when it comes to vocabulary.  There are some wonderful books out there that are engaging and thought-provoking, but have been written with a simpler level of vocabulary.

For example, we love the Little House series, but there are not many words that I would classify as Tier II vocabulary words.  Tier II words are your POWER words!  They are words that children probably don’t use in every day speech, but are used in books across a variety of subject areas.  The more of them you know, the better your reading comprehension will be. Not to mention, you will develop the mature vocabulary needed to be a great writer and speaker.  Maybe growing up attending prairie schools led to Laura’s simpler vocabulary or maybe she wanted younger readers to be able to engage with her books.

So what children’s books ARE great for building vocabulary?  Check out the list of books below!  They are full of Tier II vocabulary and many are written in a way that the context often helps the reader predict the meaning of unknown words. And they are fun, engaging stories, which is important, too!  Make sure you download the FREE VOCABULARY LISTS for some of the books at the end.

Cover for blog post Children's Books to Build Vocabulary. Shows picture of four children's books and a title.

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Books by E. B. White

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (Grades 3-5), Stuart Little (Grades 3-5), and The Trumpet of the Swan (Grades 3-5) are full of ‘big’ words that children will encounter in many contexts as they grow.  In fact, the vocabulary list for Charlotte’s Web at the end of this post contains over 100 words, including “injustice”, “unremitting”, “monotonous” and “captivity”.  While The Trumpet of the Swan does not contain quite so many ‘big words’, it does include “peninsula”, “ascent”, “teeming” and many more.  Not to mention White’s stories are full of adventure and wonderful characters and themes!

Books by Kate DiCamillo

DiCamillo is a current author who writes wonderful books full of powerful vocabulary words. We first met her through her Mercy Watson books, which make Great First Chapter Books. She has also written several books for older readers and I personally learned the concept of “chiaroscuro” from the name of one of the characters in her book, The Tale of Desperaux (Grades 3-5). This book also contains great words such as “diplomat”, “conform” and “repent”. Her book, Because of Winn-Dixie (Grades 3-5), exposes readers to the words “ignorant”, “abide”, and “vermin” while telling the story of a friendship between a girl and a dog.

Books by Roald Dahl

Dahl’s books are also full of ‘big’, descriptive words and fun and sometimes strange adventures!  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Grades 4-6) and James and the Giant Peach (Grades 4-6) are our current favorites, but I have heard great things about BFG (Grades 3-5) and have put it on our ‘To Read’ list.  Examples of vocabulary include “menacing”, “infuriate”, and “vital” from James and the Giant Peach and “colossal”, “expose” and “pandemonium” in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Many words are found in both books so if you read both, you have natural vocabulary review built in!

Check out our Roald Dahl FREE Unit Study!

The Borrowers Series

The Borrowers (Grades 3-6) is a series of five books written in the 1950s and 60s about miniature people who live in the real world and ‘borrow’ objects and repurpose them to use in their miniature houses.  They were actually some of my favorite books when I was a child!  Some of the words can be antiquated, but many are ‘big words’ children will encounter in a variety of contexts, such as “assent”, “destitute”, “emigrate”, and “self-sufficient”.

The Indian in the Cupboard Series

The Indian in the Cupboard series of five books (Grades 4-5) was written in the 1980s and 90s and tells the story of a boy’s discovery of how to make figurines come to life and the resulting challenges.  ‘Big words’ include “chasm”, “gape”, “incredulous”, and “coherent”.

Books by Katherine Applegate

Applegate is best known for her book, The One and Only Ivan (Grades 3-7), but Crenshaw (Grades 4-7) is another book of hers with powerful words. Crenshaw contains words such “dignity”, “flummoxed”, and “pizzazz” while The One and Only Ivan  exposes children to “upstart”, “relent”, “swagger” and “dismay”.

Books by Katherine Paterson

Paterson writes meaningful books about children struggling with big things.  They also contain lots of ‘big words’.  Bridge to Terabithia (Grades 4-7) includes words such as “despise”, “conspicuous”, and “proverbial” while her book The Great Gilly Hopkins (Grades 4-7) contains “tentatively”, “futile”, “appalling”, and “perpetual”.

Harry Potter Books

So, I am sure you don’t need me to tell you that the Harry Potter books (Grades 5-6) tell an amazing story that engages children! But, one might become so engaged in the story, they miss that they are full of wonderful words! Just a few from the first book are “contrary”, “pierce”, “phoenix”, “stern”, “jolt”, “chivalry” and “vigorous”.

C.S. Lewis: Chronicles of Narnia

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Grades 5-7) is the most famous of this set of seven books and was the first one Lewis wrote.  However, the publisher suggests starting with the Magician’s Nephew so that you have the back story of the beginning of the Narnian world.  If you are just going to read one, though, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe can stand alone. If you have read C.S. Lewis, you know his work is full of ‘big words’.  Some are antiquated, but many are words children will encounter in a variety of contexts, such as   “inquisitive”, “lulling”, “hoax”, and “dominions”.

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is a mystery series about three children found living in the wild on an estate and about how their governess attempts to civilize them. (Grades 5-8)  There is a ‘big word’ right in the title of the book and the big words continue with “tirade”, “imp”, “blase” and more.

Hopefully, you have found several books on this list to add to your To Read list!  However, there are so many more that we could have included.  Which books would you put on the list?

Download the Vocabulary Lists

These are lists of Tier II words organized by chapter for the following books: Charlotte’s Web, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Borrowers, and the Indian in the Cupboard.  More books will be added in the future!

Other Vocabulary Resources

Cover for 5 Tips for Teaching Vocabulary in Children's Literature Cover for the James and the Giant Peach Vocabulary Packet