Blog Word Complexity in Children’s Books

Word Complexity in Children’s Books

by Erika Cardamone
pile of books

It’s no secret that reading to your child from a young age can help build their vocabulary, improve language skills, and help with their ability to carry a conversation.

The incredible thing about books is that they can give any reader a new experience. Books have the ability to take you to a place you’ve never been, experience a feeling maybe you haven’t had, and for our budding conversationalists… expose them to new words never before heard.

We created the Starling to help motivate parents to talk more to their kids. But as you may have heard us say before… it’s not all about word quantity. The number of different words that you say to child, or the quality of your conversations you have with your child, really makes a difference in how they learn language.

But it seems like quite the taxing task to come up with different words in a moment with your child. Imagine you’re out for a walk and your child observantly points to an airplane in the sky. You’d probably say: “Do you see the airplane flying in the sky?” A great way to describe what’s happening.

No parent would actually say: “Wow, that airplane is gliding because of a force called lift, which is generated by the forward motion of the airplane, produced by the thrust of the engine.”

Those are two different ways to describe the exact same thing. But you likely aren’t using words like gliding or lift in your everyday conversations to talk about airplanes (unless maybe you’ve studied more aerospace concepts than the next guy). However, using these different words builds a higher quality of language that your child hears, and thus produces a generally smarter kiddo.

Good news is that, as parents, we can heavily rely on quality books to expose our kiddos to high quality words.

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” — Emilie Buchwald

Books provide a plethora of different words that we might not necessarily say during conversations or hear on television. Reading books aloud has been proven to grow vocabulary, optimize word learning and be the most effective way of elaborating and explaining new things.

You can think about vocabulary in two basic categories: high frequency words and low frequency words.

High frequency words would be words that you use often in a day. For example, eat, milk, clock, baby, car, dog, happy, etc. Low frequency words are those that you likely are not saying often, such as munch, bellow, fierce, camel, architect, delighted, etc. These lower frequency words have a powerful effect on the verbal skills of our early talkers.

Now, you might be thinking that watching a television show would expose your kiddo to newer, lower frequency words. Right? Well, not quite. Research has shown that young children don’t actually comprehend what they’re watching on television. Moreover, we’ve all seen how once that screen goes on, your kiddo is somehow taken into a hypnotic moment, not engaging in any social conversation, which doesn’t allow for the elaboration or explanation that a reading book would. So not only is word-learning reduced during television watching (compared to book sharing), but you’re tot is missing out on that key social engagement with you!

“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away. And in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf on the wall.” — Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Okay, okay. You’re a believer in books. But the quality of the book matters too! Look for books that have a diverse vocabulary, with rich, new words that you’re not saying day to day… the low frequency words. Look for books that are fun for you to read! If you like reading them, chances are your child will too!

Take a look at some of our favorite books and authors with snapshots of text below. You can also check out the Association of Library Service to Children to see a list of recommended books by age.

Sandra Boynton, The Going to Bed Book, Happy Hippo Angry Duck, But Not the Hippopotamus, and more! Boynton writes: “A hog and a frog cavort in the bog, but not the hippopotamus.”

Julia Donaldson, The Gruffalo, The Snail and the Whale, Room on the Broom, and more! Donaldson writes: “Then out of the bushes on thundering paws, there bounded a dog with a hat in his jaws.”

Andrea Beaty, Iggy Peck Architect, Ada Twist Scientist , and more! Beaty writes: “One hypothesis Ada thought to be true: The terrible stink came from Dad’s cabbage stew!”

Giles Andreae, Commotion in the Ocean, Giraffes Can’t Dance , and more! Andreae writes: “Listen to the swaying grass and listen to the trees. To me the sweetest music is the branches in the breeze.”

Alice Schertle, Very Hairy Bear, Button Up!, Little Blue Truck , and more! Schertle writes:”Roooom, went the Dump, around a curve. He saw a puddle, he tried to swerve.”


  1. Hargrave, A. & Seneschal, M. (2000). A book reading intervention with preschool children who have limited vocabularies: the benefits of regular reading and dialogic reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly (15) p. 75-90.
  2. Hirsch-Pasek (2015). The contribution of early communication quality to low-income children’s language success. Psychological Science (26) p. 1071-1083.
  3. Dickinson, D. & Neuman, S. (2006). Handbook of Early Literacy Research. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.
  4. Kindle, K. (2009). Vocabulary Development During Read-Alouds: Primary Practices. The Reading Teacher, 63 (3). p. 202-211.
  5. Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2008). Creating Robust Vocabulary. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  6. Kerkorian, H., Wartella, E., Anderson, D. (2008). Media and Young Children’s Learning. The Future of Our Children, 18 (1). p. 39.
About the Author

Erika Cardamone

Erika Cardamone is a speech-language pathologist, Mom, and founder of Baby School, a course that teaches parents how to play with their babies. In her free time, she’s searching for umami in her local eateries, building forts and having dance parties with her toddler and husband in their small city apartment. If you want to know what she’s thinking, she’ll tell you at her blog over at

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