Many people, particularly those over the age of 30, have a couple of dictionaries at home.
Perhaps yours is dog-eared and scattered with marginalia; maybe, like this reporter, you still have a German-to-English dictionary from high school on the shelf, the spine intact. You might even remember the wonder of looking up one word and learning a few you didn’t know while your eyes lingered on the page.
And now third graders across Teton County are joining the ranks of dictionary owners, thanks to a Rotary Club of Jackson Hole Supper Club program that has run since 2007.
“One of Rotary’s focuses is literacy,” Dictionary Chair Helen Bishop said. “This is part of our literacy project.”
Four Rotarians were at Munger Mountain Elementary School on Nov. 20 to give out a Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus to six classrooms of students. They gave a brief history of the Rotary Club, then delved into the benefits of owning a dictionary.
“Just browsing through a dictionary will build your vocabulary,” Zach Padilla told the kids, “by seeing so many words instead of just using your phone or iPad.”
Rotary’s dictionary donation is part of a loosely affiliated nationwide program that distributes the tomes in all 50 states. The aptly named Dictionary Project began in 1992 when a Georgia woman named Annie Palmer handed out 50 of the books to children in her hometown of Savannah.
Businesses and civic organizations have picked up the torch as well, and Rotary clubs across the country have joined. In creating the program, Palmer and some of the original board members saw third grade as the optimal time to hand out dictionaries.
“This is the age at which dictionary skills are usually taught,” the program’s website says. “Educators describe third grade as the time when a student transitions from learning to read to reading to learn.”
Padilla told the students that having a dictionary is just the beginning of using words wisely. Before he started speaking, the Rotarians unfurled a banner inscribed with the club’s “four-way test,” which he said they use to judge the things they say and write.
The test includes a series of questions: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Some of the students looked a little confused at the new words in the test, but their dictionaries (which include a thesaurus) should help them decipher the meaning of the terms they didn’t know.
“We hope you will show this to your parents and older brothers and sisters,” Padilla said, “and talk about what these four sentences mean.”
This year the Supper Club purchased roughly 260 dictionaries, with the largest number going to Munger students. Since the Munger delivery the club has bestowed them on all public schools except Alta and Kelly elementary schools. Bishop said the Rotarians that like to give out the books at the outlying schools were out of town, so they would wait to give them to those students.
Cracking open a dictionary invokes images of dimly lit libraries and musty smells emanating from dust caught between pages. Part of that old-timey construct comes from the fact that most people don’t use a dictionary when they look up a word these days.
With free dictionary apps and websites that come complete with a thesaurus and etymology built into the definitions, students are more likely to pick up a digital device than a paperback when they need to learn a word. Bishop said the Rotarians have thought about the diminishing use of books, but that giving away iPads that could include word-finding capabilities would be too expensive.
“We still like the idea of a physical book they tuck into their desk drawer,” she said.
The Rotarians have a nostalgic impression of dictionaries as volumes students scrawl their names into and use to flag interesting words. Undoubtedly some will do that, but lexicographers are less romantic about people’s attachment to their dictionaries and how that affects the use of physical copies.
“For most people, a dictionary is a practical tool for resolving immediate communicative problems,” linguist Michael Rundell wrote in 2013, “and as such, a dictionary accessed on a computer or mobile device has huge advantages over its analogue predecessors.”
Though the Dictionary Project started with just the namesake books, it has since evolved to offer “thesauruses, atlases, Spanish/English dictionaries, French/English dictionaries, or vocabulary builders to students,” according to its website. Jackson’s Supper Club is considering an evolution to support various types of literacy.
The giveaway at Munger featured a contingent of Latino students, some of whom speak Spanish at home and are learning English, and English-speaking kids practicing Spanish. The books Rotary distributed were English dictionaries, which address only half the learning the Munger students are engaged in.
Jackson’s three large elementary schools have large Spanish-speaking populations as well, and in light of the evolving needs of school-age kids, Bishop said, the club is looking at changing its offering.
“Next year we going to look for ones in Spanish and English,” Bishop said. “We’re going to have to research them.”
Regardless of the evolution from hard copy to digital, the Rotarians continue to give out the books because the student reaction is positive. Even if they have to grow into the use of the gift, kids are happy to receive something that will further their vocabulary and make them better students, Bishop said.
“It’s really fun to make the appointments and watch the kids march in,” she said. “It’s great to see their faces when you give them the dictionary.”