Paul Swadley, age 9, is severely deaf, profoundly deaf, a condition he's had since birth.

Unlike most deaf children he's reading well above the normal level for his age, despite the fact that he's never heard a word of spoken language.It's not unusual for him to read six or seven books a week.

He's participates in all major class discussions and in December he read an original poem at his school's Christmas assembly.

Paul, who enrolled in a regular public school classroom for the first time this fall, is a product of a relatively new and slightly known method of educating deaf children called cued speech - a combination of hand signals and lip reading.

He is one of perhaps a dozen deaf children in the Washington area currently using the cued speech method of learning. Some in regular public school systems, some in preschool tutoring and some in an experimental program at the National Child Research Center.

Developed 12 years ago at Gallaudet College here by R. Orin Cornett, cued speech is currently in use in about 50 educational programs for the deaf throughout the united States. Its supporters include a small but growing corps of enthusiants who will argue that because the system is based on phonetics, deaf children who learn that method develop a linguistic agility that many deaf people never acquire.

"The one open window on the world of the hearing which the deaf person should have is reading," says Gallaudet's Cornett. "But the vast majority of prelinqually deaf persons do not learn to read well, and thus do not make maximum use of what should be their greatest asset. The basic reason for this is that they do not learn the spoken language before learning to read."

Cued speech, he adds, is simple enough that most parents can learn it in a matter of 12 to 15 hours. "Children then learn the language from their parents, which is the way hearing children learn it."

"With cuing, I can talk to my son like a normal human being. I don't feel held back. I'm talking to a person, not a handicapped child," says Sheila Scher, whose 4 1/2-year-old deaf son Steven is in the cued speech program at the National Child Research Center in northwest Washington.

Before signing up for the cued method, Steven had been enrolled in a Montgomery County program for the deaf that emphasized oral communication and lip reading.

"I felt very stymied and very stifled," says Scher. "I felt very uncomfortable talking to my own son. We just weren't communicating."

"He is just fantastic in the way he receives and the way he expresses himself. We've opened up whole new worlds. We're getting the basic communication that is so important in bringing up children," says Steven's father, Barry Scher.

Developed by Cornett during a six-month leave of obsence from Gallaudet, cued speech is, essentially, a manual supplement to lip reading. It consists of eight hand shapes used in four different positions near the lips to make all of the sounds of the English language look different either on the lips or on the hands.

"If all the sounds we use in speech looked clearly different from each other on the lips, a deaf child could learn the spoken language by lip reading," says Cornett.

"But lips identify groups of sounds, not single sounds."

By cuing with hand and finger gestures, enough information is added to the group of sounds identifiable by lip reading to pinpoint visually the single sound being spoken.

"If the parents of a deaf child learn cued speech and use it consistently with the child, the spoken language will be learned in a visual form through normal, everyday communication in the home," says Cornett.

"The child will learn the same verbal elements, the same words, syllables, phrases and syntax that are used in speech. This can blend together into one language model used for thought and self expression."

A physicist by training, Cornett came to Gallaudet in 1965 as vice president for planning with no previous training in education of the deaf. He soon concluded, he says, that education of deaf persons was failing, at least as far as reading was concerned.

"The average person in a school for the deaf in the United States reads at a fourth grade level at the age of 19. Here at Gallaudet where we get the cream of the corp. 80 per cent of the deaf students never read for pleasure and of the 20 per cent who do, three-quarters of them were not born deaf."

Sign language, he said, although an effective method of communication among deaf persons, is a language in and of itself, different from English with a different syntax. It is not particularly helpful in the acquisition of reading skills.

Leah Henegar of Glenn Dale in Prince George's County, 2 years old in September, 1966, was the first child to learn cued speech under Cornett's direction.

By the age of 7, she was enrolled in a combined second and third grade class at Glenn Dale Elementary School reading on grade level.

Throughout grade school, each of Leah's teachers learned cued speech and today, at 13, she is in the eighth grade at Thomas Johnson Junior High School, receiving one hour of special instruction a day, but otherwise functioning in a regular classroom. "She's performing on grade level and she's holding her own," says her mother, Mary Elsie Henegar.

After Leah, the cued speech movement spread, slowly in some places, more rapidly in others.

For more than 100 years, educators of the deaf had been arguing over which method of education was best, manual, using hand signals - or oral, concentrating on lip reading. Cued speech added another element to that dispute.

"I think Cornett's objectives are admirable and desirable," says George Fellendorf, executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, an organization that supports the oral approach.

"The thing that bothers me is that is isn't more widely used. For certain children it does seem to have advantages, but we still think maximum use of residual hearing is the best approach."

Currently, cued sppeech is used widely in Australia, but sporadically in the United States. In the Washington area, between 30 and 40 deaf children have learned cued speech over the past decade, Cornett estimates, but it was not until the fall of 1973 that the system was put into formal use at the National Child Research Center.

Last fall, three children from that program entered public schools in the Washington area; Paul Swadley to Fairfax; Tommie Wells, reading two years above grade level in Prince George's County, and Tiri Scott to Montgomery County.

Of the three, Paul's program in Fairfax makes the most extensive use of cued speech. In Montgomery, Tiri's parents are negotiating for a cued speech program under a new federal law that gives parents of handicapped children increased power to determine what kinds of educational programs will be offered to their children.

Teachers aides in Tommie's school, Skyline Elementary, have learned cued speech and he's using it in a limited way there.

At Beech Tree Elementary School in Fairfax, teacher Rosemary Davis decided during the summer that she would like to have Paul in her class and she went to Gallaudet on her own to learn cued speech.

"I had never known any deaf people," she said," but this just tugged at my heart. I knew that boy belonged in here with the neighborhood children. I had been teaching for 20 years and I hadn't accepted a new challenge in a long time. I wasn't sure I could do it, but I knew I wanted him in my class."

As Davis began the school year, cuing to Paul as she addressed the class, other children soon began imitating her. After a few weeks, she had a cued speech teacher from Gallaudet out to teach cued speech to the class and by Christmas a half dozen of Paul's classmates had learned cued speech well enough to communicate with Paul.

"Cuing to Paul is one of the things that really makes the children feel good about themselves," says Davis. "This is a wonderful opportunity for them to be with a handicapped person and to understand that they can be normal human beings."

"At the beginning of the year, I thought that cued speech would be sort of hard and dumb," said Jennifer Jacoby, one of Paul's classmates. "But it was easy. I like to have conversations with Paul and cue to him."