John, 42, is the owner of a Prince George's County auto-body repair shop that grosses nearly $100,000 a year, but he cannot read the words "oil change" or "tire pressure" on his own maintenance form.

Jennifer, 22, held a job as a hair shampooer in a fashionable Georgetown salon for two days, before the owner discovered that she was not licensed. Because Jennifer could not read beyond the first-grade level she was not able to pass the requisite exam.

Allan, a 38-year-old sanitation worker, cannot read street signs well enough to find his way to specific addresses. On his first trip to his tutor's home, he had to leave an hour and a half early so that he could stop every few blocks to ask directions.

These aduilts are among the students trying to learn to read with the help of the one-year-old Prince George's County Literacy Council, Inc., a private literacy action program.

Mariolyn (Mal) Lindstrom, the program's executive director, says as many as 30,000 Prince George's residents probably do not read well enough to understand a classified ad. Exact figures are unavailable, she said, pointing out that "there's no real way to know how many people are itlliterate, because they couldn't read the census forms."

Approximately 100 volunteer tutors now teach reading to about 100 students, using an "each-one-teach-one" method, said Lindstrom. The technique's success depends on the rapport the tutor develops with the student during two-hour sessions twice weekly.

"We (the tutors) never say no," she said. "We can't because we might wind up discouraging the student.

"It's a great experience to see a person read for the first time," she added.

Lindstrom said the fact that 50 county residents already have signed up to begin the program next fall is an additional indication of the need for the literacy council, which struggles to get by on a meager budget of $6,200 per year raised through private donations.

The inability to read and write is sometimes likened to ineptness and mental retardation, but nothing could be further from the truth, Lindstrom said.

"Some of the students have a razor-sharp memory," she said. "They had to develop alternate skills and clever techniques to replace their reading deficiencies."

The Prince George's County program, Lindstrom says, draws a cross-section of tutors and students: "We even have one student who runs his own business, and a tutor who's a judge."

Essie Lyons, a retired government employe who tutors, said that she joined the council because "I didn't want to sit around all day watching television.

"When you can't read, you're locked out of the mainstream. Your inability to read stifles (you). You can't be employed," she said.

Alan Bowers, a tutor who has retired as program director of WETA-TV, has increased his own reading because of the program.

"I read so many books these days, I can't remember them all," Bowers said.

Twice a week in the mornings, Bowers works with his student in a surburban library, teaching phonics (how to pronounce letters) and reviewing reading passages sentence by sentence.

The student, in his early 40s, was the oldest child in a North Carolina family of seven, and dropped out of fourth grade to help his family survive. Although a younger brother went on to earn a master's degree, the student is just beginning to learn the simple seven- and eight-word sentences of the first text.

"I want to learn to read well enough to enjoy life," he said.

The council uses a teaching method developed in 1930 by the Rev. Frank C.

Laubach, founder of Laubach Literacy International and then a missionary in the Philippines. Laubach's techique introduces phonics and also instructs students to associate the letters they are learning with pictures of common items, such as asociating the letter "d" with a picture of a dish. The method is used today to teach 310 languages in 109 countries.

By the end of the course used by the Prince George's tutors, students -- who go at theri own pace -- read and write at the fifth-grade level.

The organization has not sought county money because of the budget pinch in Prince George's brought on by TRIM, the tax-limiting charter amendment, Lindstrom said.

"We felt our efforts would be more productive if we focused on raising money from private soures, rather than going through all the bureaucratic red tape of applying for funds from the county." said Lindstrom.

County council vice chairwoman Ann Landry Lombardi agrees: "With the TRIM anandment, I'm not sure we can keep the programs running that we have, much less fit another into our budgt."

Lindstrom, a former reading teacher for the county, uses a spare bedroom in her Fort Washington home as the literacy council's office.

She pinches pennies by typing her own letters and notes on an aging portable typewriter. She takes phone calls at a second-hand drafting table and uses a cardboard box as a desk-top sorter.

She made use of her hobby, calligraphy, to design the council's letterhead,

Money collected in fund-raising programs and through donations since the council was incorporated last year has eased the task of recruiting and retaining tutors.

"It used to be that the tutors had to pay for the reading materials, and the council would subsidize the cost of books for the students," Lindstrom said.

Now the council can buy materials for tutors. Most of the students can afford the $18.25 for their texts and pamphlets.

Illiteracy is a national problem, according to the Ford Foundation, which defines functional literacy as "the ability to perform as citizens, family members, consumers and job-holders." The foundation said there are anywhere from 18 to 64 million adult illiterates in the United States.

Compulsory draft registration, which began this week, may identify more teen-aged illiterates because of their inability to read and understand the registration forms.

Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) has introduced legislation that would establish a national literacy commission. Although the bill was tabled in committee, its backers say they will work for its passage next term.

Other literacy training programs in Maryland include those offered by the Montgomery County Literary Council, University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The Montgomery literacy council, with a budget of $34,825 for fiscal year 1981, last year trained 400 students using 200 tutors.

For more information on the Prince George's council, contact the Prince George's County Literacy Council, Inc. at 292-5441.