Eight-year-old Gami-Lou Beli liked the definitions.

Deavyn Dyson, her 8-year-old classmate, was excited about the pages on sign language and the planets and "all sorts of stuff."

Shirley Holmes, their teacher at Adams Elementary School in the District, was delighted that every third-grader in her class -- indeed, in the whole city -- was receiving a free dictionary to take home and use to help explore the wonders of the English language.

The national Dictionary Project came to D.C. public schools yesterday, with a two-day distribution of paperback dictionaries to promote literacy in a system where only 31 percent of fourth-graders last year achieved at least a basic level in reading on an annual assessment, compared with the national average of 62 percent.

About 6,000 dictionaries were being delivered by members of the Rotary Club of Washington yesterday and today to students in 100 D.C. public schools as part of an effort that has given 1.5 million dictionaries to youngsters in most states since 1995. About 55,000 dictionaries will be donated in Maryland this year and about 200 in Virginia, officials said.

At Adams yesterday, Rotary Club member Frank Chalmers told the children that their new books have 13,000 words in them, prompting some to gasp and say: "What?"

"The English language has 300,000 words, but this is a very good spot to start," he said, adding they could take their books home. "It's yours for the rest of time."

Although dictionaries are not exactly high on most children's lists of treats, students at Adams said they were great gifts. One girl told Rotary Club member Steve Dingledine that her brother, now in fourth grade, had received one last year -- the first time the club distributed them in the District -- and that she was excited to get her own. One boy who had just moved to the city from Guatemala and couldn't understand a word of English kept flipping the pages, mesmerized.

"We need dictionaries desperately," Holmes said. "Most of the students don't have dictionaries at home. And some parents don't speak English. You really can't do anything with the words if you don't know the definition."

The Dictionary Project is the brainchild of a former school board secretary, Mary French, who operates it from Charleston, S.C.

Eager to get dictionaries into the hands of as many students as possible, French obtains low prices for the books from publishers -- $1 to $2 each -- and civic organizations buy and distribute them in their communities. Rotary Clubs across the country, as well as Elks and other groups, have participated.

Dingledine said the D.C. project -- which was underwritten this year with a $10,000 donation from Pepco -- was ideal for his Rotary Club to pursue because it allowed members to contribute to literacy in their communities.

French said she always insists that the dictionaries include the words "respect" and "courteous."

When she started handing out the books, she said, she asked students what words they wanted to look up. One said "courteous," but the word was not in the dictionary.

"I was really upset," French said. The same thing happened in another class, when the word "respect" was mentioned. At that point, she said, she began to draw the line at low-budget dictionaries that did not include basic words.

The dictionaries are good for students of any age, but French recommends that they go to third-graders because they will have a long time to use them.

"It helps them extend their vocabulary, so they can understand the world," she said. "They really need to make those connections with words. You can't just do it on television where it is all visual."

Gami-Lou Beli, right, shares information in her dictionary with classmate Deavyn Dyson at Adams Elementary School in Northwest Washington.Rotarian Frank Chalmers presents a dictionary to Rosita Quintanilla as her teacher Shirley Holmes watches.