The creators of "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" are to be congratulated for bringing a still-distasteful social topic -- adult illiteracy -- to television without being preachy. This two-hour special at 9 tonight on Channel 9, starring singer Johnny Cash, takes a tasteful, if melodramatic, look at the problems of this disadvantaged segment.

In the first hour, Jesse Hallam, a middle-aged coal miner, moves his daughter and son from a Kentucky town to Cincinnati. This move, prompted by the need of an expensive spine operation for the girl, unleashes his confrontation with his handicap. In registering his son for the new high school, he is given forms but he throws them back. He skips over signing the surgical release, saying the doctor explained the procedure. When he inquires about a factory job, he notices a card of instructions by the complicated machinery, and walks away. There are dozens of everyday episodes that remind him of his deficiency, but he ignores them.

It takes the discovery of his illiteracy by his new boss, Eli Wallach, a greengrocer for whom he is loading and unloading vegetables, to provide the right level of shame for Hallam to seek help. The boss's daughter and high-school vice-principal, played by Brenda Vaccaro, spells out the challenge. "Are you totally illiterate?" she asks. "What kind of dumb question is that?" he answers. "It's like saying are you totally pregnant." She replies, "There are 25 million functional illiterates. It takes hard work but it can be done." The rest of the movie concentrates on that hard work, the trauma of reading lessons and Hallam's goal of taking his driver's examination.

Cash easily portrays the man used to using his brawn and bluster and hiding behind the safety of his home town and family. He is acceptably rigid when holding back his pride, hiding his reading lessons from his children. And he is genuinely gleeful when he is able to read a passage from "The Wizard of Oz."

But the emotional response of the viewer doesn't begin until Hallam starts dealing with his handicap in terms of self-worth rather than the practicality of a job or a driver's license. Wallach's scolding in his own rapid, broken English, and Vaccaro's pushing, add to the compassionate yet unromantic look at illiteracy. And the viewers are saved from the preaching until Cash's strong bid at stump speaking in the last frame, but by then the story has made its point.