This won't be easy, but we'll try it anyway.

What sound does the letter "c" make?

Did you say kuh or suh? Well, I hope you'll take this the right way.

You're wrong.

There's no vowel sound there. It's either kkk (the sound of a nut cracking) or sss (the sound of air escaping from a leaky tire), depending on what vowel comes after the c. If teachers teach that the sound of the letter "c" is kuh or suh, says Lorraine Gandy, an Arlington kindergarten teacher, "phonics will fail."

Gandy is a woman on a phonics mission. And even though phonics -- the traditional approach to teaching children to read by sounding out words -- is making a major comeback, Gandy is concerned that many teachers do not know how to teach it properly.

Take the sound the letter "c" makes. You may have seen the lesson on "Sesame Street," where a cartoon figure stands in front of the letters c-a-t and repeats, kuh, a, tuh faster and faster until he finally says "cat." But Gandy points out that those three sounds really don't blend together to make "cat" and, as a result, the demonstration just confuses kids. That's why she spends a lot of time in class making sure her kids have the exact right sounds to go with each letter and know how to blend those sounds properly.

Which, in turn, is a big part of the reason why Gandy's school -- Arlington Traditional School -- has the second-highest reading scores in the state of Virginia. At least, that's what the school's principal, Holly Hawthorne, believes. This school year all 41 kids in Gandy's two kindergarten classes passed a state literacy screening in November. In fact, Gandy claims that in almost 30 years the only children she hasn't taught how to read properly were a handful with severe cog-nitive deficits.

Sheltered in her classroom, Lorraine Gandy has taught the same way for her entire career. But outside, in the world of teachers colleges and educational bulletins, the reading wars have been swirling.

Reading may well be the most complex activity that human beings engage in; after looking at some of the recent research, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that it is amazing that we expect adults to read, much less little kids. Before even beginning the process of reading, children must first develop a fair amount of spoken language, understand that language can be represented by symbols and know what those symbols are, and recognize such protocols as reading left-to-right and top-to-bottom, among other skills. From there, they must come to associate those little symbols with meaning, a process involving a bewildering variety of perceptions and calculations.

Learning to read English is particularly unforgiving. To begin with, there are two basic kinds of languages: pictorial and alphabetic. Chinese, with its thousands of pictographs, is the most prominent example of the pictorial: Each symbol represents a single word or concept. Most written languages, however, including English, rely on the alphabetic principle, meaning that letters correspond to the individual sounds that make up words.

Here's where we start running into trouble. Unlike, say, Spanish, where each letter generally has only one sound associated with it, in English we have somewhere between 40 and 44 sounds (or phonemes), depending on how you count, and only 26 letters.

As a result, some letters have more than one sound, and still more sounds are signified by specific combinations of letters. And because English draws from so many language traditions, each with its own phonetic rules, for every rule there are a lot of exceptions. So, for example, you may have learned about the "magic `e' " that, when added to the end of a word with a vowel-consonant pattern, changes the vowel sound from short to long, as in "cap" and "cape" or "fat" and "fate." But what do you do about cafe and recipe?

Do such exceptions make English closer to a pictorial language? In other words, should children learn to recognize the complete word "cat" and go directly to its meaning? Or should we teach them that the word "cat" is made up of the sounds kkk, a, ttt, and rely on their knowledge of spoken language to fill in the meaning?

It may seem an arcane discussion, but it is exactly this kind of question on which the debate over early reading instruction turns. If you believe the former, then you might encourage children to "sight read" words, relying on the surrounding text and pictures to fill in any blanks. If you believe the latter, you might teach as Gandy does, systematically going over which sounds are represented by which letters and letter combinations.

Or take another hotly contested debate: Is written language acquired "naturally," like spoken language, simply by being in a "language rich" environment? Or is reading a carefully cultivated activity that requires learning the "codes" and using them in a systematic way?

If you believe the former, you might try to get kids "reading" interesting stories that they might not be able to understand completely but which will motivate them to try. You might teach phonetic principles, but only in the context of stories and text that the kids find interesting.

However, if you believe that kids must learn the alphabetic code piece by piece, then you're back in Lorraine Gandy's classroom, with her drills and flashcards.

For more than a hundred years, educators have debated these and related questions. In the 19th century, the standard reading texts used in the United States were the McGuffey Readers, which, along with specially commissioned moral tales and illustrations, contained a heavy dose of phonics drills, repetition and regimentation.

The turn of the century saw the emergence of education reformers called the progressives (broadly associated with the larger political movement of the same name), who argued that learning should be more meaningful and less reliant on drills and rote learning. This led to the development of a new method of reading, known as "look-say," which emphasized recognizing whole words in context and was popularized by the "Dick and Jane" books that many grown-ups remember. But after the publication of Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolph Flesch in 1955, the look-say fad receded, and direct instruction of phonics made a comeback.

Phonics was displaced again, however, in the 1970s and '80s, this time by "whole language" teaching, a philosophical approach developed in New Zealand that was built on the belief that children learn to read best when surrounded by interesting, meaningful written materials. School systems around the country adopted whole-language teaching, with the largest trial taking place in California, which adopted the method wholesale in 1987. Phonics materials were physically removed from classrooms as the subject was systematically eliminated from instruction.

By 1994, California's reading scores had dropped from the top in the nation to tying with Louisiana for last place. Other factors such as limited budgets, large class sizes and a surge of immigration contributed to the drop, but the lack of phonics instruction was given a share of the blame. Last year, California ended the experiment, reverting to phonics statewide as the main method of teaching early reading.

The same swing of the pendulum has taken place in the Washington area, albeit to a less dramatic extent. For years, phonics-devoted teachers such as Gandy had to buy their own teaching materials because local school systems deemed phonics instruction unnecessary. But these days you can't find a school in the area that doesn't claim to teach phonics. It's hard, in fact, to find one that admits it ever didn't teach phonics. It's a reversal that makes teachers snort.

The reason for the turnaround is a series of recent findings from a broad range of experts suggesting that explicit phonics instruction is an essential ingredient in teaching many, perhaps most, children to read. In 1995, at the request of the Department of Education, the National Research Council brought together some of the nation's top researchers in the fields of reading, special education, neuroscience and psycholinguistics to devise a strategy to ensure that every child in the country would be taught to read. Last spring, they issued their report, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children."

The report's conclusion was that it was important to teach explicit, systematic phonics within a context of meaningful literature. "The reading wars," the council pronounced hopefully, "are over." A subsequent report, issued last June by an alliance of 12 of the nation's biggest educational organizations, from the teachers unions to the National School Boards Association, echoed the experts' finding, calling for reading instruction to "provide all children explicit, systematic instruction in phonics and exposure to rich literature, both fiction and nonfiction."

To observers outside the academic fray, these conclusions and reports have a certain "well, duh" quality. But they are nothing short of revolutionary in the scholastic world, and they've prompted school systems throughout the Washington area to adopt a "balanced" approach to their reading programs -- tantamount to an admission that prior teaching had been unbalanced in favor of whole-language practices.

The fact is, for most kids, either method -- or some combination of the two -- works just fine. According to most of the available research, up to a third of children are virtually "hard wired" to read and will all but teach themselves when they are surrounded by written materials. Another third or so will learn to read with thoughtful instruction of pretty much any kind. The problem comes with the final third of kids for whom learning to read is highly dependent on the instruction they receive. The worst off tend to be kids who come from less language-rich environments, particularly poor kids, but it isn't just them. Thirty percent of the children of college-educated parents are reading below basic levels, according to national assessments. And somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of African American and Latino students read below basic levels. These are the kids for whom the question of phonics or whole language or some combination of the two is more than academic.

"I do so much more work on phonemic awareness than I used to," says Kelly Harrington, referring to the process of recognizing specific letter sounds. Harrington, who teaches Head Start pre-kindergarten at Georgian Forest Elementary School, is proud to show off the writing of her 4-year-old student Cameron. It's wobbly and the letters run together, but the words are there: "WEWENTTOOTHEZOO." Cameron may need some work on homonyms, but his phonemic awareness is doing just fine.

A low-slung brick building in northern Silver Spring, Georgian Forest is one of Montgomery County's smaller elementary schools, with about 450 students. Almost half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and about 15 percent have limited English proficiency.

Georgian Forest is one of 54 schools in the county selected last year to be a "Reading Initiative" school, guaranteeing small classes for reading and language arts. The plan, principals and teachers agree, has made a huge difference in their ability to ensure that each child gets the help he or she needs.

A big part of the reading initiative at Georgian Forest, say teachers, is an increased concentration on phonics. But unlike the intensive phonics at some schools, the instruction at Georgian Forest is "contextual," meaning that it is taught as it arises in the literature children are reading. "We're not teaching the magic `e,' " says Principal Chrisandra Richardson, or other rules that only work some of the time.

"The Reading Initiative is a complete, comprehensive approach," says Suzanne Clewell, Montgomery County's language arts coordinator. "We teach phonics in many, many different ways. Not all children need the same thing."

It's too early to make any definitive statements about the success of the reading initiative, but early signs are positive. Richardson says that after adopting some of the initiative's methods last year, her school ended up with 90 percent of second-graders reading on or above grade level, a dramatic improvement from the previous year.

This kind of teaching requires considerable skill and training, and so every new elementary school teacher in Montgomery County must go through two weeks of intensive training in how to teach reading. Such training is needed because of a widely acknowledged failure of schools of education to teach teachers how to teach reading. In Maryland, that need is being addressed by a new requirement that all elementary school teachers take a minimum of four courses, or 12 credits, in how to teach reading. The exact requirements are still being worked out, but Trudy Collier, chief of the language development and early learning branch of the Maryland Department of Education, says that they will certainly include lessons in how to teach phonics. Phonics, Collier cautions, "is not the magic bullet, but it is part of the magic bullet."

Don't tell that to Frances Robinson, the principal of Stanton Elementary School in Southeast Washington and a phonics convert. Stanton, a chronically low-performing school, is one of seven schools in the District that are teaching the Open Court method of phonics as part of a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Open Court, published by McGraw-Hill, is a program of textbooks and teaching aids for direct, explicit phonics instruction. The method has been at the heart of a few controversies in local jurisdictions, particularly Fairfax County, where last year a determined group of parents pushed to have the county adopt Open Court, with only partial success.

Stanton Elementary is one of those large, old District schools, with long hallways mostly painted a chilly blue. The kindergarten and first-grade classrooms are a bit cheerier, with pictures on the walls and shelves and shelves of books. And in each of these classrooms, a daily phonics lesson is taught along a carefully scripted plan provided by Open Court. One day the class will work on "short a" words, the next day "short e," and so on.

The children in Stanton's kindergarten classes, mostly dressed in white shirts and navy skirts or pants, certainly appear to be learning to read. As a class, they answer questions about characters and plot and draw illustrations of stories, just as their older brothers and sisters might have done years ago. But today the heart of their instruction is learning to sound out words.

According to Robinson, it's working. In fall 1997, 53 percent of her school's first-graders scored "below average" in the category of word recognition on the Stanford 9 test. This past fall, that number had fallen to 38 percent, which Robinson attributes to the fact that last year, as kindergarteners, those children had learned phonics from teachers trained to teach Open Court. "It gives the children that phonetic base," she says.

Robinson believes even larger improvements may be yet to come: Last year was a tough one in the District -- school opened late, many of the materials weren't ready throughout the year, and the teachers had just started being trained. This year will be a better test, which is why Robinson is anxiously awaiting the results from this year's Stanford 9, which was administered last month. "We should have a solid group of folks," she says.

Early results from the other District schools testing phonics curricula seem to support Robinson's experience. At the beginning of last year, all but one of the schools involved began well below national averages as measured by the Stanford 9 -- most of them down around the 20th percentile. By spring, 16 of the 29 classrooms teaching direct phonics scored above the national average.

These results are all preliminary, and largely anecdotal. But more definitive data should be available in 2002, when the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development completes its multicity study, which also includes two District schools using a different phonics program and three others teaching a more typical whole-language approach. The results of the study should provide valuable evidence on which teaching methods work best with specific kinds of children.

Whatever the outcome of the study, Lorraine Gandy expects to continue teaching reading the same way she has for almost 30 years -- a variant of the Open Court method, which she has modified and adapted over time to suit herself and the Arlington curriculum. The same method will be used by Gandy's newest colleague, whose name, coincidentally, is a mere phoneme away: Julie Handy. When Handy was hired straight out of an education program at Elon College in North Carolina to become Arlington Traditional School's second kindergarten teacher, it was with the understanding that she would be closely trained by Gandy.

"I would bring my class in to work with Mrs. Gandy," says Handy. "We did the first six letters together, so I could see how to do it." Without Gandy's training, she adds, "I'd be floundering."

Although Handy had taken a course in teaching reading that discussed phonics, she says, more of her teacher training focused on whole-language methods of instruction. Most of her friends who are also new teachers at different schools, she says, are in awe of the fact that she is managing to teach all of her students -- not just some -- to read.

And that's not all. Handy says she has received a more personal benefit from Gandy's phonics instruction. "I'm a much more confident speller than I was before," she says.

Karin Chenoweth is a freelance writer whose education column "Homeroom" appears in the Montgomery Weekly section of The Post.