Which Version of the Bible is Best for Kids and Teens?

True confession. The primary version of the Bible available when I was a child was the King James Version. Even though I was an excellent reader, poring over text written in Elizabethan English did wonders for my future grades in Shakespeare units, but comprehending the Bible was often a struggle. Those who struggled in reading found the Bible to be a frustration text – meaning it was too difficult for them – and many learned to hate reading the Bible as a result.

Somewhere in my childhood, the NIV became popular. While easier to read and understand than the King James Version, it still proved too difficult for those who struggled to read. They grew up to perhaps read the Bible a bit more than struggling readers in earlier generations, but it wasn’t a book they felt comfortable with or enjoyed reading.

Today in the English language, there are lots of versions from which one can choose. Each has benefits and some have a slight or significant downside. It’s important to understand some of these basics before purchasing Bibles for kids, teens and even adults.

Below, you will find a brief description of each version along with any possible concerns about it. It’s important to understand reading levels and concerns will vary slightly from source to source, but these are at least close to common agreement. We have included The Story, even though it is not a separate version because of its recent popularity. In addition, we have omitted a few versions that are not in common use.

  • King James Version. 12th grade reading level. While some Christians believe this is the most accurate translation, because it is the oldest version in current use, it actually contains a few changes from the original manuscripts that were demanded by King James. Too difficult for all but the most gifted readers, and even those may struggle as the meanings of some words have changed since the current edition from 1769.
  • American Standard Version. 12th grade reading level. Long considered by many to be the most accurate translation, it reflects the English language as spoken in 1901. Which, while somewhat easier than the English in the King James, still sounds antiquated to the modern young person. Once again, this version will be a frustration text for all but for the most gifted readers.
  • Revised Standard Version. 10th grade reading level. The Revised Standard was an attempt to make the American Standard easier to read. It succeeded, but only by a couple of years – not enough to replace the American Standard for many of its fans.
  • Amplified Bible. 11th grade reading level. While some serious Bible students love this version, it just has too much going on for most young people. The reading level is also still too difficult for most.
  • New American Standard Version. 11th grade reading level. The goal was not to make this version of the American Standard easier to read per se, but to remove antiquated words and change punctuation. Purists will sometimes use this instead of the older version, but it’s still too difficult for many young people.
  • Good News Translation. 6th grade reading level. This version is considered a thought for thought translation. Instead of translating each word, they try to get the gist of the thought in English. Many Christians have found that the personal theologies of the translators can be included in a thought for thought version and are uncomfortable with how some of the scriptures are translated. They believe the original meaning has been changed in some cases. While easier to read, the thought for thought makes it problematic.
  • New International Version. 7th grade reading level. We didn’t check sales, but this was and probably still is one of the more popular versions. The NIV uses a mix of word for word and thought for thought in the translation. This has caused issues in some of the more recent releases as, for example, words that had a specific gender in the original language were translated as gender neutral. Other similar changes in the thought for thought portions have caused concern that accuracy is not as important to the translators as relevance. Regardless, for many teens this can be a comfortable version to read and understand and is still probably more accurate than a pure thought for thought or paraphrase.
  • New King James Version. 9th grade reading level. This was an attempt to make the KJV easier to read, but still sounding familiar for those who are fans of the KJV. It can still sound awkward to younger readers and is too difficult for those not reading comfortably at the high school level.
  • Contemporary English Version. 5th-6th grade reading level. Another thought for thought version, this was an attempt to make the language of the Bible reflect modern vocabulary and syntax. While it has the same issues as any thought for thought version, the easier reading level can make the difference in whether or not a struggling teen reader will read their Bible independently. Because of the trade off, this is often a popular Bible to mass produce cheaply and give away to seekers.
  • God’s Word Translation. 5th grade reading level. This uses a mix of word for word and thought for thought in the translation. Since it uses clear, every day English and uses some word for word translation, this can be a slightly better option than the CEV above.
  • NIrV. 3rd grade reading level. While this is a thought for thought translation, the extremely low reading level makes this version accessible to early readers, struggling readers and readers learning English as a second language. While we still prefer a word for word version for older students and better readers, this version is a must have in elementary classrooms and a few should also be available in teen and adult Bible classes. (Once sold primarily in kid appealing covers, it can now be bought in adult covers.)
  • New Living Translation. 6th grade reading level. A thought for thought version at an easier reading level than the NIV, we would still suggest the God’s Word Translation over this as it is slightly easier and has some word for word.
  • English Standard Version. 8th grade reading level. A word for word translation, this version is often the preferred version for serious Bible students over the American Standard…probably because of the slightly easier reading level.
  • The Message. 6th grade reading level. This is a paraphrase translation which is most prone to having the translators personal theologies seep into the text. We highly suggest avoiding paraphrase versions. Some teachers like these for having students memorize scripture because of the ease, but double check against a word for word version first to make sure the meaning has not been altered even subtly.
  • Christian Standard Bible (older versions may include “Holman” in the title). 7th grade reading level. This is a mix of word for word and thought for thought put out by Lifeway publishing. Probably interchangeable with other similar versions.
  • The Story. Various reading levels available. While technically not a translation or even the entire Bible, The Story takes passages from the NIV Bible and condenses the Bible into 31 chapters. Instead of being formatted like a regular Bible, it is arranged like a biography or history book. Eliminating verses and other similar Bible markings can encourage some young people to read it as they would any other book. While this is great, there can be huge problems that result from leaving out large sections of scripture. One must assume God wants us to have the entire Bible or He would have only provided this abbreviated version for us himself. The Story could have limited application for faith sharing discussions, but students should be discouraged from assuming it contains everything they need to read and know from the Bible.

We hope this little primer helps. Your minister or favorite Bible scholar may have a different opinion, but at least you now have a basic understanding of the differences. Many Bible class teachers consult more than one version to make sure they are getting the most accurate understanding of a passage before teaching it. It’s also a good habit to introduce Bible students to when they are younger. Having a few different versions in the classroom can make that easier to teach and encourage.

Categories Bible, Elementary, Special Needs, Teens
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