This is a reading comprehension exercise for children. It is written by Susan Fineman, a reading specialist in the New Haven, Conn., school district.

CAIRO--A new scholarly debate reveals it's not as easy as A-B-C to determine when civilization moved toward its first alphabet.

Yale researcher John Coleman Darnell announced in November that he had found alphabetic tracings in an Egyptian valley dating between 1900 B.C. and 1800 B.C. Soon after, word came that Greek archaeologist Panikos Chrysostomou claimed to have found even older traces--dating to 5300 B.C.--of a possible writing system in northern Greece.

Both men will have to work hard to persuade experts to adopt any new theories about origins of the alphabet. For now, most researchers believe the soundest evidence of an early alphabet dates to 1600 B.C. and was found near or in turquoise mines in Egypt.

The invention of the alphabet revolutionized humanity by extending the ability to read to the common person. Before that, only scribes and rulers had the time to memorize the multiple meanings of hundreds of images in pictographic writings.

In both the Greek and Egyptian cases, experts in ancient writing warn it's too early to form a scholarly opinion about the finds. Among the many questions: how to decipher whether the marks represent sounds or concepts or whether they are just crude designs or random scratchings.

Darnell, who was assisted by his wife, Deborah, also an Egyptologist, said he came upon the limestone graffiti while surveying the ancient road during the archaeological digging season in 1993-94.

He later returned to the site, known as Wadi el-Hol (Valley of Horror), with writing specialists to try to decipher the inscriptions on the walls with computer assistance.

Their conclusion was that the inscriptions provide evidence of the oldest alphabetic writings, he said.

"This is an important discovery, filling in a blank at the beginning of the alphabet," said Frank M. Cross, an early-alphabet expert at Harvard University. "Its simplicity is breathtaking, compared to the writing systems of the time."


True or False?

1. In 1900 B.C., Yale researcher John Coleman Darnell uncovered traces of an early Egyptian alphabet.

2. Darnell discovered the limestone graffiti at an Egyptian site known as the Valley of Horror.

3. Archaeologist Panikos Chrysostomou uncovered signs of a Greek writing system dating to 5300 B.C.

4. Both Darnell and Chrysostomou want to prove that the Greeks invented the first alphabet.

5. Writing experts agree that the finds are really just simple designs.

6. With the help of computers, specialists are trying to decipher (figure out) the meanings of the inscriptions.

7. For now, most experts believe that the best proof of an early alphabet was found in turquoise mines in Egypt.

8. Before the development of a writing system, rulers of ancient civilizations could only communicate by scribbling.

9. Scientists have known for a long time that most first-graders are unable to learn the letters of the alphabet.

10. The invention of the alphabet made it possible for common (ordinary) people to read.

Bonus: The Greek and Egyptian discoveries will enable scholars to complete difficult fill-in-the-blank sentences.

Answer key: 1. False, 2. True, 3. True, 4. False, 5. False, 6. True, 7. True, 8. False, 9. False, 10. True, Bonus: False