When the bell rang shortly before 10 a.m., Donna James stopped reading and asked if she could take the English book home. She wanted to study for a quiz two days later.

No, she was told, students in other English classes would need to read the 30-page play, too, and there weren't enough books to go around.

James, a junior at Ballou High School and one of 30 students in her college-bound class, cannot take a grammar book home either.

"My [English] class is for highly advanced students and that's even more reason to have books," she said. "How can you score high on the SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] if you don't have books?

"They're always saying that D.C. students score low, but how can you score high when you can't even take home books to read?

"It's not fair that we have to read in class all the time and don't get a chance to discuss [the books] with the teacher and ask questions like we're supposed to. Sometimes we can, but sometimes we have to use the class time to do the reading."

James, Joan Pierotti, her English teacher, and a number of other English teachers at Ballou and other D.C. high schools complain that there is an inadequate number of appropriate grammar and literature books for students to take home to study.

Over the years, classroom sets of textbooks have dwindled for several reasons, according to teachers and city education officials. Some students take book without permission or fail to return borrowed books.

Through losses over the years, the discontinuation of some books and a laissez-faire book selection process, many teachers in D.C. schools find themselves with incomplete classroom sets.

The practice of letting teachers choose which books they want for their own classes has resulted in the ordering of different sets of books that ultimately cannot be matched up to meet shortgates in other classes.

Pierotti said the situation at Ballou is not new. "Never in the 10 years I've been at Ballou have I had a literature or grammar book which I could put in the hands of a kid and say, 'Take it home. It's yours for the year.'"

As a result, she added, "Most of the assignments are one they can do without grammar books. or we make our own stencils . . . But that's woefully inadequate and means a lot of homework is cut down. We do a lot of exercises in class that should be done at home.

"You either have to sit in the classroom and read it, or get it from the library or buy it . . . If they can't get their assignments ready [in class], I can't let them take the book home."

Ballou principal Dennis Johnson insists there is no shortage, pointing to storerooms filled with grammar and literature books ordered over the years by English teachers.

Teachers counter that the stored books are useless since they are either outdated (some at Ballou were two years older than the 20-year-old school) or too advanced for their pupils, many of whom read at grade-school level.

In cases where an ample supply of literature and instruction texts are available, some maintain, the books were ordered for the School of Mathematics and Science, a showcase mini-school within Ballou.

Ironically, the need to teach basic grammar is a point on which Johnson and the teachers agree. Among their main objectives are improving reading comprehension, grammar and vocabulary.

It is the best means to achieve this end that is in dispute.

"Grammar is painful to teach," Johnson said. "The [teachers] want to sit around and read 'Canterbury Tales' or Shakespeare" in class.

He wants the emphasis to be almost exclusively on grammar: "The [English teachers] shouldn't be ordering literature books. They should be ordering grammar books. Our kids don't need anthologies. They need grammar books."

The teachers, including Madeline Foreman, head of Ballou's English department, concur in the need to stress grammar. But, Foreman adds, grammar drills need to be integrated with literature, drama and poetry.

If anything, the teachers said, they spend an inordinate amount of time on grammar, both in the classroom and preparing special instruction sheets at home on their own time.

The grammar books most of the teachers use are so old or so advanced for the pupils that most teachers wind up writing their own instructional material to supplement the books in class and replace books the students can't take home.

Some of the supplemental material seems aimed at the much younger children. "You sometimes have to do this to make it as basic as you can," Pierotti said, referring cartoons illustrating the functions of adjectives, nouns and verbs in a booklet she had put together for an 11th-grade class.

Most of the grammar texts contrasted sharply with colorful, neat decorations in English classrooms dealing with the fundamentals of grammar and vocabulary. Teachers showed a rag-tag collection of Warriners, a standard high school grammar text used in many schools around the country. On several, bindings were ripped, pages torn and the text scribbled over. Some of the books were copyrighted in 1958.

Some new, updated copies of Warriners arrived this year, but not enough to replace all the old ones. There was a classroom set of about 30 for each English teacher to use.

The old books -- some are more recent than 1958 -- are a different edition from the new ones, making coordination of the two texts difficult for teaching or homework purposes. The basic grammar lessons, obviously, do not change, but the examples and reading passages have been updated in the newer editions.

When the English department got $5,000 last fall, the first of two annual book allotments, department head Foreman recalled, teachers wanted to order a less complicated book. Because of a computer error, neither that book nor the Warriners was on the book list.

"We had to spend the money on literature books instead of grammar books," Foreman said. "It's use it or lose it. That's the way the system works and it was the largest amount that we've ever gotten.

When Johnson learned about the order last week, he rescinded it and arranged for grammar books to be sent instead.

The book-ordering system has many flaws, teachers said. Often they were asked to decide which books they wanted without having a chance to review those available. In some years, they added, they never received any of the books ordered.

And, some English teachers noted, funds for buying books have been so meager in the past that they have either bought books out of their own pockets or sponsored dinners and trips to raise money for literature and textbooks, as well as for such equipment as duplicating machines.

If the English Department wants literature books, Johnson said, waving at shelves in the storage room, it could request those already available. Among the books were "War and Peace," "1984," Animal Farm" and "Don Quixote."

"Oh, we've got plenty of books down there [in the storeroom] but the kids can't read them," said a teacher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. "What are you going to do when the whole class sits there like zombies?"

Pointing to reading test scores -- tests that were purchased with proceeds from teacher-sponsored fund-raisers -- a teacher noted that the average reading level for her 10th-grade class was fifth grade.

Another teacher estimated that only 15 percent of her class reads on grade level.

Johnson initially disputed that some students read below grade level and contended that the teacher was at fault for not getting the child assigned elsewhere.

The slower students should be placed in remedial reading labs or special classes, Johnson said, and will be next year.

Another possible solution, he said, is to have the high school teachers order from the junior high or even grade-school approved reading lists.

"If the kids can't read," he said, "why are you going to give them Shakespeare?"

Johnson also pointed to shelves of grammar books, some old and some apparently never touched.

Because of the latitude given teachers in selecting books, orders may be placed for different books. One teacher, for example, may order a set of a particular grammar or literature book and then get transferred to another school. That teacher's replacement may not want to use the book, accounting for "leftover" sets.

"It's not that there aren't enough books," said Mary White, the city's supervisor and director of English for all grades. "It's that they aren't always what the teacher wants. We're trying to bring the textbook ordering under some sort of structure."

James Taylor of the schools' instructional services department, said the school system is trying to curtail the range of books a teacher can order from.

"We can't afford that luxury any more," Taylor said, adding that the range of books that can be ordered in the future will have to be compatible with the new competency-based curriculum being developed in a back-to-basics move.