There are few words in the American vocabulary that inspire more reverence than "research."

Not surprisingly, the federal government reflects the national sentiment that research is the way to progress, a better life, knowledge, and military security.

"R & D" -- research and development -- has a magical appeal to members of Congress who otherwise become apoplectic about wasteful government spending. And government financing of all sorts of research has proliferated to almost every federal agency.

Consider, for example, the National Institute of Education, established by Congress in 1972 "to support scientific inquiry into the educational process."

In the last five years NIE has paid about $350 million to universities, professors, libraries and nonprofit organizations. To find out what, actually, this money has gone for I sent for Educational Research in Progress, NIE's document.

As I let my fingers do the walking through the book's 116 yellow pages of project resumes, I entered the unfamiliar world of educational research.

There is a $200,000 project on "The Control of Eye Fixation by the Meaning of Spoken Language and Its Application." Harvard's School of Education, I learned, had received $93,734 to study "The Development of Metaphoric Operations" (how children learn to "produce and comprehend metaphors"). And Harvard College also received $16,196 to study the "Cognitive Learning Patterns and Social Interactive Styles of Cape Verdean Children."

A word that came up often was "dissemination." NIE has people working full time on disseminating the information it collects. And it also spends federal money studying how to disseminate it. For instance, $115,000 Capacity Building Project, which is to "develop a coordinated dissemination system."

My finger finally came to rest on project EP 78 0436 -- "Service-Like Events During Individual Work Time and Their Contribution to the Nature of the Rules for Classroom Communication," to which $82,000 was allocated.

The resume said the project was aimed at finding out how children in classrooms "go about seeking information from their teachers and peers in such a way that they get the information they seek." Translated, and roughly speaking, this means: how do kids talk to their teachers?

To get a sense of how a project like this takes shape, I called NIE and set up an appointment with Virginia Koehler, assistant director of the teaching and instruction division, and Marcia Whiteman, the project officer.

NIE occupies floors six through eight of an office building at 1200 19th St. NW. In Koehler's office, a blackboard was crammed with familiar bureaucratic scrawl -- chalked handwritten phrases such as "Research on Specific Follow-Through Topics" and "Specifics on Alternate Strategies." s

The genesis of the Service-Like Events project, she explained, was a three-day conference sponsored by NIE in 1974 at the Dulles Airport Marriott Hotel. NIE brought in 11 professors and linguists from England and the United States. Out of this meeting came a report suggesting that linguistics could be a useful tool in helping teachers communicate better with children in classrooms.

In 1977, as a result of this report, NIE earmarked $1,250,000 for grants in which linguists would study communication in the classroom. Eight proposals out of 70 received were funded.

One recipient was Courtney Cazden, the Harvard School of Education professor who had chaired the Marriott conference in 1974. Cazden and another investigator won approval for a three-year, $197,000 study of bilingual first-grade classrooms.

Also funded was the proposal for the Service-Like Events project submitted by Marilyn W. Merritt of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Arlington. The center is working for NIE, the Department of Education and Health and Human Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It also has a $50,000 two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study the comparative grammar of Chadic, an Afro-Asian language group.

According to project director Whiteman, "service-like events" is a socio-linguistic phrase, which in this case, referred to communication between children working on their own in a classroom, and their teacher.

An event could involve a youngster interrupting a teacher who was talking to other children, a youngster seeking help from another child or a youngster simply asking a question. These are crucial learning moments, Koehler and Whiteman explained, and the way a teacher responds has a big impact on a child's education.

Merritt's research relied almost entirely on 437 videotapes assembled by the center in earlier work for the Carnegie Foundation. The tapes were made at a private school in the Washington area.

Merritt brought in as a consultant Roger Shuy, an associate of the center who also was at the Marriott meeting in 1974. Credited heavily throughout the work is Harvard's Cazden.

To a reader not versed in the methods and vocabulary of linguistics, Merritt's final 235-page report is heavy going. The first 58 pages are devoted to methodology, and later sections deal with "interwining of verbal and nonverbal modalities."

A major conclusion of Merritt's research was that the most effective teachers are those who are consistent in the way they respond to questions and interruptions. But Merritt acknowledged that conclusions were still tentative.

"The methodological 'proof' or documentation of how we know what I think we know is more elusive, though great energy has been expended in this direction," she wrote.

Officials of NIE and of the Center for Applied Linguistics say they agonize constantly over the question of whether the research will have practical results.

Of the Merritt study, NIE's Whiteman said. "Basically the opinion has been that it's a good, thoroughly descriptive study and that we need to know more."

NIE director Michael P. Timpane said that under his 1 1/2-year-old administration, efforts to make research useful to teachers havebeen strengthened.

"Only the federal government has the resources to do this kind of research," he said. "We're eight years old now and really at the point where we have something to disseminate."

Merritt is now living in New Delhi and could not be contacted.

But her former boss, the center's executive director, Richard Tucker, said he was pleased to learn that Merritt's material was used last summer in a course at the University of New Mexico. The course was given by Courtney Cazden.