Bridport Grange program spells 'success'

BRIDPORT — When Debbie Ploof attends community events in Addison County, whether it’s a town festival in Shoreham or a school event in Weybridge, she is instantly recognized by local kids as “the dictionary lady.” 

The nickname has been well-earned by Ploof, who, as master of the Bridport Grange, has played a key role in the Grange-sponsored program Words for Thirds program, which annually presents free dictionaries to third-graders in Addison Central Supervisory Union schools.

The Bridport Words for Thirds program has been active since 2002. It is a branch of a larger national nonprofit organization called the Dictionary Project, which was started in South Carolina in 1995 and went national two years later.

The project’s goal is to promote literacy by providing a free dictionary to students across the country in third grade, since this is the age at which reading and writing become critical foundations for other important life skills.

Funding for the dictionaries comes from donations and sponsors (like the Bridport Grange) who have introduced the project into their local communities. The dictionaries are specifically geared toward a younger audience, which makes them user-friendly for the third-graders, Ploof said.

Every year of the project, a new dictionary is published that takes into account suggestions that teachers, parents and students had the previous year.

The Dictionary Project discovered that many children do not own or have access to dictionaries at home. They believe that if kids are given a dictionary that belongs uniquely to them, they are likely to value it more highly than a classroom or library dictionary.

Ploof and the Bridport Grange provide dictionaries to Shoreham Elementary, Bridport Central, Weybridge Elementary, Cornwall Elementary, Salisbury Community School, Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury and Ripton Elementary. This year 100 dictionaries were distributed to third-graders in these schools, a number that Ploof says is smaller than in previous years due to fewer students and smaller classes.

For the 2009-2010 school year, a total of 6,605 dictionaries were distributed across Vermont in 169 sponsored schools, according to the Dictionary Project website.

Words for Thirds is operated by the Bridport Grange on a volunteer basis; anyone who wants to get involved can do so by contacting the Grange.

Every year, Ploof personally goes to each third-grade classroom to distribute the books and show the kids how to use them.

“This dictionary has a lot of things in it besides just words. It has math facts, times tables, the Constitution, and maps,” Ploof said.

As soon as “the dictionary lady” provides the students with their personal books, she has them look up Vermont on the map so they can find out facts about their home, such as the state flower.

“The kids really get enthused about the dictionaries,” Ploof said. “I know the program works because my own daughter is still using hers.”

Ploof encourages the kids to get a bag or backpack so they can carry their dictionary with them wherever they go. That way, if they end up in a situation where they’re stuck with nothing to do, they can just pop open their book and look up word meanings, how they’re spelled, or fun facts.

The program is not only important to Ploof, but also to her daughters (one of whom just graduated from high school), who like to accompany their mother to the schools on days that she’ll be handing out the life-changing books.

“They’re excited to see the kids’ eyes light up when they realize that this dictionary belongs to them, and will be with them forever,” Ploof explained.

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