A five-year-old program to help Prince George's County children learn to read has come under fierce attack by parents who claim their children are being unfairly labeled as "slow."

The program, these parents claim, is poorly conceived, uses faulty screening and leaves their children with a damaged self-image.

So devastating was her son's experience, one mother said, that three years after he had left the program, he said to her: "I want you to tell me the truth. Was I retarded in the first grade?"

The mother, who requested anonymity, added: "He thought he had made a miraculous recovery."

Two other parents have filed complaints with the federal Department of Health Education and Welfare's office of civil rights. They claim the program belongs in the category of "special education," and that "normal" children are being placed in it without due process and other protections mandated for special education.

The dozen parents leading the challenge to the program say they have received support of roughly 200 others. The group has complained to the county executive and the school superintendent and is drafting a complaint to the Maryland state school superintendent.

The $200,000 program, called Specific Language/Reading Development (SL/RD), was designed to help average-to-above-average students, who, because of perceptual or other problems, have difficulty learning to read. About 10,000 of the county's 133,000 students were enrolled this past school year, from kindergarten through high school.

It is a unique program that, according to school officials, has attracted the attention of other school districts. And, its supporters say, it is helping children in a county where help is needed. Reading and math test scores, traditionally below statewide averages, fell even futher behind last year.

School officials have conducted no overall evaluations or comparative studies of the 5-year-old program. This fall, they say, a researcher will evaluate it and test its methods on pupils not included in the program.

The program touches a sensitive nerve: parents' fear that their children through an arbitrary test, will be separated from other students and judged "different."

"Putting a label on a child could really have some bad side effects," said Diane Findlay, whose daughter "flunked" the test in kindergarten last May. At the same time, the child passed a test for the county's "talented and gifted" program. "I sort of object to that label, too," Findlay said.

AN "SL/RD" notation goes onto a child's permanent record. Some parents worry that this abbreviation will become confused with the designation for a program called Specific Language Disability, a federally-mandated special education program. The parents are concerned that if they move, the new schooldistrict won't make the distinction.

Findlay and other parents fault the screening procedure for the program, which relies heavily on a test developed by the educator Beth Slingerland to detect dyslexia and other perceptual problems.

A sample question calls for children to look at a card showing a dot in a triangle, put their pencils on the floor and pick them up again, then remember the design and pick it out from three similar ones on a printed sheet.

"I would have difficulty passing it," says Findlay, who also criticized the school for using her and other parent volunteers as testing aids.

Julia Herbert, program coordinator, says such procedures violate school policy, but vigorously defends the test itself. "It shows what a child can do in terms of what other children do," she said, adding that teachers are consulted on placements.

Once in the program, children follow a highly structured, phonetic approach to reading instead of the traditional one. "It's mat-fat-cat instead of Dick, Jane Sally," said Bob Stokes, a reading teacher at Thomas Claggett elementary, who likes the teaching approach but wants to stop labeling the children.

Many parents say the method is helping teach their children to read. But some, like Gary Probst, himself a Prince George's Community College reading instructor, claim it prevents their children from learning fatther.

Probst's son received "satisfactory" marks in fourth-grade reading, language, handwriting and spelling. In fifth grade, he began the reading program; his grades fell to Ds. His father had him moved to regular clases, and his grades improved to Cs. Probst claims "baby work" assignments and impaired self-esteem caused his son's marks to fall.

Probst and other parents also say the schools failed to adequately notify them of the reading program's testing and placement. Principal's letters inform parents of placements, sometimes weeks after their children have begun classes. A parental consent line is optional, Herbert says, to spare principals excess "paperwork." Probst contends it should be mandatory.

The discovery that a child has been placed in the program can trigger a poignant struggle within a family.

One mother describes it this way:

Her son, happy and doing well in kindergarten, was placed in the reading program in first grade. When she asked why, a school psychologist said her son had "auditory motor impairment." She took him to another psychlogist and a pediatrician, who found no such problem.

Her son began worrying about his self-image and became "mildly depressed." "It took a toll on his health: "He was absent 35 days. He was sick, had headaches, stomachaches," it also took a toll on his schoolwork: "he was working slower than others . . . Peer pressure had a great deal to do with it."

Once they persuaded the school to return him to regular classes, the boy's work improved. Then, last December, came the question about retardation. "he'd been holding it in for three years," his mother said.

Last May, this mother's two other children failed the reading program test. The parents, believing the schools are improperly diagnosing their children, will enroll them in private school this fall.

Program coordinator Herbert says parents are wrong to assume the schools are trying to diagnose anything. "these are not handicapped, not disabled children." She says the bottom line is not labeling, but teaching.

"i have had kids come in and say, 'i can't read, I'm a dummy" she said. "The best luck I've had is in improving their self-concept showing them they could do something they haven't done before . . . The thing that really labels kids is their failure."