Last fall, WJLA-TV and the local public television stations aired special programming and public service announcements on the problems facing Americans who can't read. During October, more than 1,500 area residents called the special hot-line number asking how to get into reading programs.

The volunteer literacy programs in Prince George's County are now tutoring 607 students who cannot read above the fourth-grade level. There are 150 people on the waiting list to get into the program.

Project READ, a literacy program on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, found that 50 percent of the people who entered the program were high school graduates who read below the fourth-grade level.

Yet recently The Post reported on its front page a story questioning the severity of the literacy problem in the United States.

Our response to that story is not based on studies performed by academia. Instead, it relies on the phone calls, personal histories and experience of thousands of people in the metropolitan Washington area who work to improve reading skills through a variety of programs. And that response is: yes, we have a real problem. Too many adults cannot read with enough comprehension to understand the directions on an aspirin bottle, a menu in a restaurant or the manual for a driver's license.

The Literacy Network of the Council of Governments estimates that 16 percent of our area's adults need reading comprehension training. These include a large number of foreign-born residents, who may be literate in their own language but lack reading skills in English. In addition, there are many in this group who never learned to read in their own language, making the process of learning to read and comprehend written text even more difficult.

In the metropolitan Washington area, a network of public and private organizations has developed a number of programs to help adults develop literacy skills. If an adult cannot read at all, basic reading and learning programs are available. Pre-GED (general equivalency diploma) programs have been developed for adults who have the basic skills but need more work in comprehension, grammar or more advanced reading. Other English for Foreign Speakers programs are also available. Many of these programs are volunteer based; others are provided through the school systems or through private fee-based sources.

The programs to teach reading and comprehension are there; but getting the message to the people who need these programs and increasing the network of volunteers who are able to teach reading skills are the real problems.

During the next 10 months, the Literacy Network will be working to increase the number of adults enrolled in literacy programs, recruit and train more volunteers and identify the local groups that provide literacy programs. In addition, by targeting the business community through special breakfasts scheduled for October and by forming by a business advisory council, we will begin working with employers who want to develop reading comprehension training for their employees.

The social stigma that rests on anyone who has trouble with reading skills and comprehension must be overcome, and articles that appear to diminish the problem through cute puns ("Too Much Is Read Into Illiteracy Crisis") don't help.

Those of us who work in the field know that the problem exists and that we can help. All it takes is that moment when a student's face lights up and she says, "I can read this; I understand." When that happens, no amount of statistics from educators will persuade us to call a halt to our efforts to bring reading and comprehension to all our residents. -- Ruth Crone is the director of human services and public safety for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.