A world of words: Anibal Pepper, M.D. and teacher Gina Martino hand out dictionaries to third-graders at Grant-White School.John Rice/Contributor

Have dictionaries gone the way of road maps, phone books and landline telephones? Is there a need, in the Digital Age, for a “cordless spell checker,” as cartoonist T. Hayes described dictionaries? We should be grateful there are teachers and organizations who still believe dictionaries are important learning tools.

Last Wednesday, 65 members of local Rotary clubs distributed pocket dictionaries to more than 1,300 third-graders in Oak Park, River Forest and the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. Two Rotarians brought dictionaries to Grant-White, Field-Stevenson and St. Bernardine, as part of the Dictionary Project.

The project was started by Annie Plummer in 1992. She was a mom in Savannah, Ga., who feared local students were losing their vocabulary. Annie gave out 50 dictionaries that first year. Since then, the project has spread to all 50 states and 16 countries. Eighteen million students have received free dictionaries. The project focuses on third-graders because it’s when kids first learn to use a dictionary.

Gina Martino, a third-grade teacher at Grant-White, thinks it’s a wonderful program. Gina is concerned that educational skills are being swept away by the tidal wave of technology. Students are losing their ability to research topics and look up vocabulary words without a computer. “Everything is ‘Google it,'” Gina observed.

To counteract this trend, she and her colleagues are teaching students how to navigate print and on-line dictionaries. For a third-grader, though, holding a free book in their hands is much more exciting than clicking a mouse. Plus, every year it’s a surprise!

Jerry Lordan arrived at Grant-White with a box of dictionaries. His partner was Anibal Pepper, M.D., a surgeon from River Forest. Addressing the combined third-grade classes, Jerry explained that the Rotary Club wants everyone in the world to learn how to read.

As teachers passed out dictionaries to the enthusiastic crowd on the carpet, Jerry explained that a “dictionary tells you what words mean.” Meanwhile, Dr. Pepper, a native of Peru, sought out Latino students and gave them copies of English-Spanish dictionaries. Jerry invited the students to write their names in the dictionaries. He then read the questions that Rotary members consider before supporting a project.

“Will it be beneficial for all concerned?” was the final question. He instructed the students to look up the meaning of “beneficial.” A girl raised her hand and said it meant, “Useful and profitable.” She could have been describing the project.

Jerry said it’s especially useful for the Rotarians who distribute the books. He noted that many haven’t been to a school in years. It’s their way of supporting education and showing students that other adults in the community care about them.

Hey, if the kids want to learn how to read a road map, or use a phone book, I’m there for them.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.