The importance of vocabulary: why ‘trivial’ matters

Ellen Irvine | Account Manager Reading, Uncategorized Leave a Comment

There was plenty of head-shaking and finger-wagging over the state of our children’s vocabulary after the NCEA Year 13 History exam brouhaha.

The students were asked to analyse the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with Julius Caesar’s quote in relation to a historical event: “Events of importance are the result of trivial causes.”

Problem was, they didn’t know the meaning of ‘trivial’.

Like the nation’s talkback callers, I too was shocked by this. I messaged my sister, saying surely even my 12-year-old niece knew the meaning of trivial? She did, and what’s more, so did my eight-year-old nephew, who responded to his mother’s question by answering that the word meant ‘not important’. (My six-year-old was unfamiliar with the word, but rest assured, she too now understands the meaning of ‘trivial’).

So how do we develop vocabulary? How do younger children such as my niece and nephew pick up language, whereas evidently plenty of 18-year-old Year 13 students – even those who are students of history – have managed to avoid a seemingly common word?

The answer is simple – reading. Voracious readers, especially of novels and literary works, but also of magazines and newspapers (online counts!), are constantly exposed to new words. You pick them up by osmosis.

Spelling is also an effective way to expand your vocabulary. Proof of this is the calibre of the students competing in the New Zealand Spelling Bee each year.

There’s not a chance those children (aged 13 or 14) wouldn’t know the meaning of ‘trivial’ – these logophiles (meaning: lovers of words) are in a different league, familiar with words that left me scratching my head. Like ‘melliferous’ (yielding or producing honey), ‘annulet’ (a small ring), or ‘tintinnabulation’ (the sound of a bell ringing).

In today’s world where Spellcheck is a daily tool we all make use of, it would be easy to question why it’s still important to learn to spell.

Perhaps the ‘trivial’ debacle of 2018 will serve as a reminder of why spelling, reading and vocabulary are important. Comprehension and the ability to express yourself are more crucial than ever in the online environment, where the written word remains supreme in blogs, articles and websites.

You don’t need to make a habit of reading the Concise Oxford Dictionary – though many of the Spelling Bee stars do. Like my niece and nephew, by simply exposing yourself to books you enjoy – whether that’s Harry Potter, Twilight or War and Peace  – you’re doing your vocabulary a favour.

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