Arkansas isn’t 48th or 49th. We’re in the Top 10 in the United States in one charitable metric.
A broad-based coalition of Arkansans have distributed more than 13,000 dictionaries to third grade public school students, a charitable coverage rate of nearly 28%, or eighth best in the nation. The coalition includes service clubs such as Rotary International, nonprofit organizations, businesses, librarians, literacy specialists, teachers and women’s groups. The aim: improve reading comprehension by third grade, a goal shared by groups such as Aspire Arkansas.
A South Carolina nonprofit since 1995, The Dictionary Project has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and other media. The idea began in 1992 when Annie Plummer of Savannah, Ga., gave 50 dictionaries to children who attended a school near her home. Since then, The Project has worked with individuals and groups to distribute more than 35 million dictionaries nationwide.
Third grade is considered a key year by educators because it is the dividing line between learning to read and reading to learn, notes Project Director Mary French. Children who learn to read are likely to be literate as adults.
The Literacy Action of Central Arkansas notes 23% of Arkansans, nearly 500,000 individuals, “are at or below the lowest level of literacy. Adults at this level of literacy range from being able to read short texts and perform simple tasks to having only very basic vocabulary and being functionally illiterate.” Adults who struggle may have difficulty filling out a job application, understanding a prescription label, or reading to their children.
During COVID in the 2020-21 school year, dictionary coverage declined to 22% of Arkansas third students. It has rebounded, with 26 sponsors in Arkansas this school year. Idaho (49%), Utah (43%), Hawaii (42.66%), Vermont (37.73%) and Wyoming (36.49%) lead the U.S. in coverage, according to Project data. Arkansas (27.61%) leads the 12-state Southeast region, ahead of South Carolina (27.11%), which ranks ninth (9th) in the nation.
Printed dictionaries are especially important in rural Arkansas.
Our nonprofit hosted a literacy forum last year at Lyon College. Assistant Professor of Elementary Education Dr. Karin Brown noted many schools have access to technology including online dictionaries, but coverage is not universal in the state.
“In rural Arkansas,” she said, “one can travel 30 to 35 miles from here, maybe even closer and discover one doesn’t have reliable internet.”
A student with a print dictionary can still learn new words.
Twelve Arkansas counties have 100 percent dictionary coverage. None are located in major urban areas. Other counties also exceed the state average. These include Sebastian (72%), Washington (53%), and Benton (52%) counties.
In generosity donating dictionaries, Arkansas ranks in the Top 10 in the nation.
Editor’s note: Economist Greg Kaza is executive director of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a market-based think tank founded in 1995. Among its activities, the Foundation distributes dictionaries. The opinions are those of the author.