Abstract In this paper nanosized luminescent materials YVO 4:Sm and YVO 4:Dy were synthesized by complex-based sol–gel method. A certain amount of soluble starch participates in this synthesis as a chelate agent. Homogeneous and fine powders have been successfully prepared because soluble starch consists of long-chain glucose units which cannot only provide chelating units but also hinder the growth of nanoparticles. The experimental results have proved that the host YVO 4 can effectively transfer the absorbed energy to the activators Sm 3+ and Dy 3+. Under the excitation of the host absorption, phosphors can emit yellow light for YVO 4:Dy 3+ nanoparticles and orange light for YVO 4:Sm 3+ nanoparticles, respectively.