The first- and second-graders in Room 104 of Mary H. Matula Elementary School in La Plata can rattle off all sorts of reasons they love Camp Read-A-Lot: bubbles, sidewalk chalk, candy, nice teachers and singing.

Anything else they like about the summer academy? Oh, yeah, they remember, the reading is pretty fun, too.

Camp Read-A-Lot is a second-year, Charles County-funded summer reading program aimed at helping students with lagging reading skills catch up before the next school year begins. The camp-themed curriculum incorporates summer fun into four sections, or blocks: working with words, guided reading, writing and self-selected reading. More than 700 children attend the program this summer at 10 elementary schools in the county. Swept up in songs, work stations and visits to the library, sometimes it's easy for students to forget that they're learning.

"Reading, writing, ABCs; I know this is good for me," sings Tieasha Johnson, 6, a first-grader in the Matula program. "Seeking knowledge every day; That is why I come this way."

Rashida Hagens, 7, joins in, "Sound off! R-E!"

"Sound off! A-D!"

"R-E-A-D. Read!"

The girls giggle before a stern look from their teacher, Susan Simonds, steers them back to books they have checked out from the school library as part of the program's self-selection block. They are encouraged to choose stories that will challenge them, forcing them to apply the lessons they learn in class.

More than 60 percent of last year's Read-A-Lot second-graders improved at least one reading level during the four-week academy, said Carol Leveillee, one of the program's coordinators and Matula's new principal.

Reading is a district priority that figures prominently into Charles County Public Schools Superintendent James E. Richmond's five-year plan for improvement, Leveillee said. It's the subject that produced the poorest score on the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests. But Leveillee said the camp is helping -- last year, for example, 421 Charles County second-graders qualified for the program based on low scores on standardized tests. This year, 334 qualified county-wide. "This, to me, has saved our kids and has gotten them on the right track for reading," Leveillee said. "If they [start third grade and] haven't learned how to attack a word or sentence without the pictures, then they get frustrated."

Poor reading skills also can lead to behavioral problems and inability to perform simple tasks, and increases the number of students in special education, she added. The county has allotted about $300,000 to the program, which includes free meals, instruction and transportation to and from the site. Teachers send reading assignments home with students, and parents are asked to fill out a brief progress report.

A typical day at one of the academy sites begins with breakfast at 9 a.m., followed by block exercises. While the teacher and a classroom intern are working one-on-one or in small groups, the other children bounce around work stations where they write sentences or read to one another. Every day they learn new, more difficult words they add to the "Word Wall."

There is a library break just before the most popular part of the day -- the "Hook." The Hook is the camp activity chosen for that day. It's usually something outdoors, Leveillee said, such as writing with sidewalk chalk or playing with a colorful parachute.

It's crucial to stress the importance of reading at this age, said Mary Beth Estevez, a reading resource teacher at Matula. It's "definitely more difficult once a child hits third grade," she said, because contextual comprehension and phonics are lessons picked up more easily by younger students.

Try telling that to Tieasha Johnson, the 6-year-old. She is struggling to make out the word "only" in a story about a birthday party. She realizes she can't sound it out, so she closes the book and shrugs.

"The words are too hard," she says. "I can't read big books by myself."

Deja Barnes, a 6-year-old classmate, won't let Johnson give up.

"Our teacher can't tell us what the word is," Deja told her friend. "Or else our brains are going to shrink."

CAPTION: Teaching intern Jeni Cox, right, directs 6-year-old Kyle Mower, left, to read aloud to his classmates at Mary H. Matula Elementary School.

CAPTION: Brittany Knott, 6, chooses a book to read during Camp Read-A-Lot's self-selection block.

CAPTION: Brian Rollins, 7, waits for his book to be scanned at the Matula Elementary library, a common literary resource for the students at Camp Read-A-Lot.