The cute little girl sitting in the front of the class looked up at Barbara Bush and launched into her love of books. "I love to read so much. I never get tired," 6-year-old Makesha Price, a first grader at Emery Elementary School, told the vice president's wife. "I just read and read and read and read."

Price and other students at the Northeast school expressed such exuberance at a Reading is FUNdamental book distribution session last week that Bush, in her surprise, was momentarily at a loss for words. A member of the RIF national board of directors, she attended the session to inspire the students. In the end, she herself was inspired.

When she learned that fourth grader Larry Cooper not only avidly read books, but also had read a front-page newspaper article on the assassination attempt on President Reagan and was carrying the article in his back pocket, she was surprised. "That's unbelievable," she said, "I'm truly impressed."

Bush, who sat among an audience of first to sixth graders and their teachers, also was impressed by two skits in which first and fifth grade students dramatized their zeal for the book distribution sessions, in which the youngsters receive free books in an effort to encourage reading. After the skits she said, "You must be a very unusual school. You realize that reading will open doors for you and let you do anything in the world you want to do."

"How many here think reading is fun?" Bush asked the students from the foot of the auditorium stage where she made her presentation before visiting classrooms. Within seconds, every boy and girl raised his or her hand high in the air, and many yelled, "I do! I do! I love to read!"

Bush smiled and asked how many students had ever taken a RIF-donated book home. Again, the little hands shot straight up.

"Did you take care of it? Did you read it?" she asked.

"Yep," replied fourth grader Robert Fitch, 10, who continued nodding affirmatively while his schoolmated cried, "Yeeaaaah!"

Throughout Bush's 15-minute speech, the youths attentively watched the tall woman with snow-white hair, who had been introduced by school Principal Dorothy Perkins as "the second lady of our land."

After her appearance in the auditorium, Bush, who says she has read about two books a week since she was 10, explained why she has chosen to do volunteer work for RIF. "I've thought a lot about the projects I would concentrate on (as the vice president's wife)," she said, "and I can't think of one thing that could help our country more than reading. No child should be deprived of reading."

Ironically, President Reagan has approved a reduced budget for the U.S. Department of Education, which provides about 75 percent of RIF's $9 million annual budget. The cuts could reduce the RIF program by 85 percent and keep nearly 3 million children from receiving 8.8 million free books next year.

RIF's staff -- 50 persons work full-time on the national program -- is lobbying to restore the Education Department cuts. So are some of the District's 1,000 volunteers. If their efforts fail, program officials say they will look for funding from private sources. However, "private funds are not always available," a RIF spokeswoman said.

RIF was founded in 1966 by the late Margaret McNamara, wife of Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank and former secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. She was inspired to start the program after meeting two fifth grade boys with severe reading problems while serving as a volunteer reading aide in inner-city elementary schools in D.C. "One of them told me he had never had a book of his own," she once told an interviewer."When I brought in some of my son's books for the boys, they were just amazed that anyone would give them a book."

That experience led McNamara to believe that children would be better motivated to read if they could choose their own books and keep them. Within one year, the RIF program was operating in 61 District public schools, giving away 200,000 paperbacks to 43,000 youngsters.

Today, there are more than 100 RIF projects in D.C. and about 4,000 in the United States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam. The program is not only in schools, but in hospitals, mobile units, migrant worker communities, Indian reservations, day-care centers and prisons.

Loretta Hanes, director of D.C. RIF, says that although RIF has "turned on thousands of children to reading," not enough parents encourage them to keep it up. So D.C. RIF launched a new program designed to get parents involved. The Pepmobile, a van packed with books and educational films sponsored by PEPCO, travels to various locations in the city to teach parents how they can help make their children better readers.

The RIF program also receives funds from the United Black Fund and donations from the community. The program receives book donations from publishers, individuals and organizations. This year, more than 200,000 books will be distributed to D.C. public school students, from pre-kindergarten to high school. A student can receive three books a year.

Although the program's future is uncertain, Bush and others working to "help America read" are continuing their efforts. Last week, after Bush had spoken in the Emery auditorium and walked upstairs to chat with other classes, she said, "This is my second RIF visit; the other (in Virginia's Fairfax County Schools) was exciting. But this one was magnificent."