WHEN SCHOOL opens next month, area kindergarteners and primary school children will enter classrooms vastly different from those their older siblings knew a few years ago.

Concerned that the school reform movement of the '80s has meant tough academic standards for young children and often inappropriate teaching methods, educators in the Washington area and elsewhere in the nation are transforming the ways children are taught to read, write and do arithmetic.

In virtually every local school district, school officials are spending the summer revamping curriculum, retraining teachers, ordering new materials and, in some cases, packing away the readers and workbooks that were the mainstays of methods now out of fashion.

"Finally people are seeing that young children think differently from older children," said Connie Mair, early childhood education specialist for the District of Columbia schools, where hundreds of kindergarten teachers have been and are being trained in new approaches to teaching.

The current trend -- which in many respects looks like Progressive Education of the 1930s and 40s -- appears to be born of two convictions: First, that young children learn best via the concrete rather than the abstract, and second, that before children learn to read, they need to be immersed in an environment rich in language and in print. Some call it "the hidden curriculum of the middle-class home," and it is lacking in the lives of increasing numbers of children entering today's public schools.

"The whole {classroom} focus is communication in the broadest sense," said Judy Hoyer, early education specialist for Prince George's County schools. "Language and writing precede the reading process."

Some educators have estimated that before entering kindergarten, the child of educated parents has thousands of hours of reading readiness via bedtime stories, conversations with adults, experiences drawing and coloring, and countless outings, whether to the supermarket or the zoo.

In today's classroom, teachers are trying to provide that kind of environment for all children. Children are urged to talk, to draw and to shape letters -- in other words, to write -- before they are ever expected to begin learning to read.

"It puts the teacher more in the role of a coach," said Marsha York, reading supervisor for Montgomery County, which is encouraging the new approach.

Similar changes are occurring in the field of math. Instead of being chained to workbooks and pencil-and-paper computation, children are using more objects to learn math. They count beans, sort buttons, stack blocks. Many school systems like Fairfax County's are investing in costly "manipulatives" such as fraction tiles, which can run as high as $400 a box.

"Children at that {early school} level are heavily into making sense of the world around them," explained Thomas Romberg, director of the National Center for Research in Mathematical Sciences Education at the University of Wisconsin. "You can hear it in the way they talk with comparative language -- I'm prettier, I'm bigger. . . . The more time you can help them compare, contrast objects in their world, the better. You need to give children a lot of rich activities to help them see that symbols like numbers mean lots of different things."

Romberg hopes that by concentrating more on concrete activities in the early grades, schools will ultimately produce better math students and fewer math phobes.

Ruth Mitchell, associate director of the Council for Basic Education, said her organization applauds the changes being made. "But I think they are proceeding much more slowly in math," she said. "Perhaps because most elementary school teachers have so little confidence in their own math abilities."

Changes are most dramatic in kindergarten and first grade classrooms, which look and feel different from those of the '80s where children spent much of their time at so-called "seat work" -- doing rows of addition problems, and circling all the "st" sounds on a page of text.

Visitors to new classrooms will find instead:

Learning Centers. Teachers are being urged to create "centers" around their rooms, little nooks where children can play house, build things, draw, and -- very important -- look at books.

"You'll see more comfortable sitting things, more students reading and discussing in pairs," said Muriel Farley, coordinator of special projects and early childhood education for Fairfax County, where substantial changes are underway. "The noise level is higher. But there is a difference between an industrious hum and chaos."

Big Books. Classrooms often have large books with big print set up on easels, where teachers can read aloud to an entire class while pointing to words and illustrations for the benefit of all children. Group reading activities are gradually replacing the old "reading groups" where children were labeled according to ability and moved through reading texts together.

Inventive Spelling. Children at all levels are urged to keep journals, draw and write stories in their own words, using their own approximations of spelling. Research has shown that children learn to read and write concurrently, and they learn literacy in much the same way they learn to talk, Farley said.

"The child learning to talk makes an attempt at a sound, and the parent praises him," said Farley. "The process of reading and writing should not be any different."

Thus the child tries to make letters and gets praise from the teacher and basal readers -- which taught children phonetic sounds in strict sequence via stories using a controlled vocabulary -- have been replaced by illustrated books containing classic stories such as "The Little Red Hen" or "The Gingerbread Man." Textbook publishers are incorporating more children's literature into story collections.

"People are asking questions about basal readers. Beginning reading has improved with them, but reading becomes a problem later in grades four, five and six," possibly because of the narrow basal approach, said Jean Osbourne associate director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois.

Most local educators are quick to point out that phonics instruction -- where children read by sounding out the letters in each word -- is still a part of most school days in kindergarten and first grade.

"We're not throwing out the baby with the bath water," said Jan Adkisson, supervisor of early childhood education in Arlington, which is changing its kindergarten curriculum. "We recognize that there are separate skills, like recognition of letters that are important."

In Washington, children will almost certainly continue to have some workbooks, if they choose them. "For some of them, it seems sort of therapeutic," said Mair.

Math Manipulates. Increasingly, children are learning math using objects: beans and buttons, kitchen utensils, plus sophisticated brightly colored shapes that can be put together as triangles, parallelograms, etc. Last monthNOTES:mid julyEND NOTES many Washington kindergarten teachers got special training in "Hands on Math" -- which substitutes objects for symbols in early math instruction.

Although educators agree the current curriculum does not serve many children well, the popularity of the one being phased in is as yet unclear. "It's not watered down," insists Mair. "But some people think it's a free for all. It requires highly knowledgeable teachers."

"One of the problems is the kind of curriculum changes are not what the {standardized} tests are testing," said Sue Braedekamp, director of professional development at the National Association for the Educaton of Young Children. The association is developing a set of guidelines for appropriate early grade activities.

"We've been so excessively dominated by test scores. Many teachers are afraid to do anything because test scores might go down," said Braedekamp.

With a basal reader, on the other hand, achievement was easily measured. "There were 19 sight words children were supposed to recognize," said Hoyer of Prince George's. "The goal was to recognize them -- "come," "was," "on," "under" -- and so you could measure achievement based on the number of sight words the child recognized."

For Braedekamp and many other educators, politicians who insisted on the easily measurable, are the villains who have seriously damaged early education.

"We've put all our eggs in the test score basket," said Braedekamp. "As a result we've dumbed down the curriculum."

Swings in fashion are nothing new in American education, and many observers hope the pendulum doesn't move too far.

"There's a lot of conflicting evidence as to what works," said Osbourne, at the Center for the Study of Reading. "The extremists on one side, say, 'No, no, no phonics.' Then you have this . . . crowd that thinks all the nation needs is a big dose of phonics. . . . A lot of teachers are very confused."

In truth, said Osbourne, a variety of things appear to work. "Fortunately," she said, "the vast majority will learn to read, no matter how you teach."

Alice Digilio covers education for the Prince William County Bureau of The Washington Post.