Vera Dickey and Judy Pollock may not think of themselves as trailblazers, but they run an enterprise that was a Washington pioneer in a field that now commands national attention: work-place literacy.

They are founders of Language at Work Inc., a nonprofit firm that provides specialized on-the-job teaching of basic to advanced reading, writing and oral communication skills to employees of private businesses and government agencies. Its students range from maintenance workers who've been taught how to read the labels of potentially dangerous cleaning fluids to mid-level executives who've learned how to make budget and sales presentations to advance their careers.

Language at Work also teaches English as a second language to Asians and Central Americans who have joined the Washington area work force, and is beginning a new program for nannies, designed to train foreign-born babysitters and housekeepers in the use of English.

The firm was "ahead of the curve" in work-place literacy when it was incorporated in November 1985, according to one of its advisory board members, Joyce Fitzpatrick of a Washington communications management firm. Its founders, she says, "have stayed very true to its original purpose; they are dealing with the issue of the 1990s."

Language at Work began as a dream, an idea that Dickey, Pollock and two other Washington women -- Nancy Goudreau and Shirley Myers -- conceived when they met while teaching at the George Washington University Reading Center. They saw that the adult workers in their classes needed and wanted to learn how to improve their reading and writing, or simply to learn to read and write. The four women told each other, "Wouldn't it be great if we could do something about it?"

Although none had ever run a business, they decided to pool their resources and begin their venture in work-place instruction. Obtaining clients was a struggle and they worked initially without salary. But they were on to something. They gradually convinced employers they could provide a needed service, and Language at Work became a growing concern.

"Employers are recognizing," says Pollock, "that their employees are unable to succeed if they lack communication skills."

"More and more employers," Dickey adds, "are becoming aware that to train valued present employees is a better financial investment than hiring new ones." She believes this will be increasingly apparent with the economic downturn and a shrinking entry-level work force.

Dickey, formerly in educational public relations at Barnard and Radcliffe Colleges and Sidwell Friends School, and Pollock, a reading teacher and co-founder and former director of a theater group, have been the firm's sole executives since their partners left to pursue their own careers. However, Goudreau, an adult education specialist, and Myers, an art gallery director, continue to serve as instructors.

Language at Work has a minimum of 30 instructors, who are hired on a contract basis and are required to be experienced teachers of adults. As many as five teaching programs a day are conducted, with some classes held as early as 6:30 a.m. and others as late as midnight.

Dickey and Pollock custom-design the programs to fit the goals of the employer-clients and the needs of the employees, and take into account work schedules and available space at the job site. Classroom materials are those the employees use in their work, such as memos, business letters, telephones and cleaning-fluid containers.

The two women are proud of the diversity of their clients. These include a hospital, health-service firms, a department store, property-management companies, public relations and consulting firms, and local and federal government agencies, among them the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice. In the past few months their client list has grown to include a law firm, an editorial business and a mortgage-financing institution.

Language at Work "gets fantastic ratings from the students," says Pat Ciuffreda, chief of supervisory and technical training for the Justice Department. The department has used the firm's instructors in its Upward Mobility program and in such courses as training for Workforce 2000, when the work force is expected to include more women, more minorities and more older people.

Language at Work also runs a separate "Lead to Read" program, which trains volunteer tutors and matches them with individuals who want to learn how to read. "Lead to Read" was launched three years ago with support from foundation grants, and in a reflection of the increased public awareness of the need to overcome illiteracy, it has waiting lists of both would-be tutors and would-be readers.

In another project supported by foundation grants, Language at Work is showing companies with largely technical training programs how to teach basic skills to their employees. The "training the trainers" project has just started, with six nonprofit organizations, including a hospital, participating.

The firm's success in work-place literacy led to a testimonial of sorts last year when representatives of a Japanese educational company visited its offices on Wisconsin Avenue on a mission to buy its teaching programs. Pollock and Dickey explained that their courses are individually designed and that they had no instruction packages to sell. But they swapped information on training corporate employees, with one of the Japanese visitors volunteering that she taught "bowing to your supervisor."

But the testimonials they like best come from the students. At the end of each course, students are asked to give their assessments of their instructors. Among those they treasure was one from a woman maintenance worker. "May God bless you," she said.

Language at Work Inc., 202-363-4521.