Until Gilbert Hughes, 32, was divorced last fall, his wife paid all the bills and answered all the mail. At the Northern Virginia aluminum siding company Hughes owns, a foreman handled the invoices. When his two young children asked him to read, he would look at the pictures and make up a story.

For years the successful businessman relied on his memory and a small tape recorder to preserve names, phone numbers and directions.

"I would say things to myself over and over and over," Hughes said recently. "If I go to a place the first time, I can get back there. It's like a handicapped person, in a way -- when you lose your sight, you get something else."

Six months ago, Hughes pulled out his tape recorder and called the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, located in Arlington, for directions to its office.

"You can fool a lot of people out there," he said. "But I just decided it was about time I learned how to read."

Hughes is one of an estimated 4 million adults in the United States now learning to read with the help of literacy councils, Adult Basic Education classes, church volunteers and business groups.

But for every Gilbert Hughes, education experts say, there are several others who are not being taught, who are not getting any closer to being able to decipher a street sign, read a medicine label or fill out a job application.

The 27 million adults nationwide estimated to be functionally illiterate are the focus of a national awareness campaign by literacy and education organizations and the Advertising Council.

At the same time, some local officials, education groups and literacy volunteers, watching the struggles of illiterate adults firsthand, have begun to channel more attention -- and money -- toward teaching adults to read.

Illiteracy "tends to be a hidden need," said Bill Bliss, a language specialist at the Center for Applied Linguistics in the District. "There is a phenomenon of adults who manage to hide the fact that they cannot read. They are . . . quietly and not visibly struggling to cope, just fumbling along."

Some illiterate adults, such as Mary Ratan, cope by backing away from life.

Until Ratan, a 38-year-old mother of six children ranging in age from 20 to 7, divorced her husband and moved to Springfield in 1979, she didn't do anything that might risk getting lost or confused by words she couldn't read.

"I wouldn't take a bus; if I had to go somewhere, I would always take a cab," she said recently.

Ratan, the oldest girl in a family of 14 children, said she attended school sporadically while growing up in The Plains, Va. But it wasn't until two years ago, while struggling as a single parent, that she began to feel the gap in her education.

Ratan and her 10-year-old daughter Odessa "weren't getting along like we should because she could read and I couldn't," Ratan said. Then another daughter, who is handicapped and mentally retarded, brought some papers home from school and asked for her mother's signature.

"I thought it was for a field trip," Ratan said. She was horrified later to learn she had signed documents to put her daughter in a home for retarded children.

At that moment, Ratan said, she knew she had to learn to read.

Nearly two years later, Ratan sits beside her tutor, Whit Watkins, at the table in her neat kitchen and reads slowly but clearly through the literacy council's Level 3 workbook.

Ratan remembers the first word she learned, after she and Watkins had practiced consonants and short vowel sounds for what seemed an eternity. She read "bird." Then "dish." Then "cup."

Now "when the kids bring something home, I know what it is. I can write letters," Ratan said with a smile. She sent Watkins a Christmas card last year. And she said there are fewer problems getting along with Odessa: "She doesn't look down on me anymore."

Literacy experts say there is no typical adult illiterate. But often, they note, events such as divorce, the birth of children, a job promotion or retirement prompt adults who have managed for years without reading to call for help.

Until then, they say, adults who can't read often cope by establishing unvarying routines for daily life and facing new situations with frequently ingenious ploys.

Adults who are illiterate "develop very good visual and aural memories," said Elsa Angel, president of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia. "Or they make excuses," for instance, telling a supermarket cashier they forgot their glasses or asking another customer to point out a special brand of food.

Some, such as Hughes, excel in their jobs, successfully hiding their reading problems from most friends and colleagues.

When he telephoned clients, Hughes explained recently, "I would say, 'How do you spell that?' and spit it into the tape recorder real fast."

Hughes can't recall anyone ever trying to teach him to read, but he vividly remembers growing more frustrated and disillusioned with each grade he attended in Richmond public schools.

"When you can't read, you become a troublemaker. Kids embarrass you," he said last week, relaxing in the living room of his tutor's Annandale home. "I got disgusted with it. Everyone else could do it and, heck, I couldn't. I'd sit down and try, and throw the book across the room."

By the seventh grade, Hughes said, he couldn't stand to be in school. He went to class 75 days that year and skipped 53. When his father asked him to join the family business, Hughes, then 14, quit school and went to work.

"We're not stupid people," Hughes said. "I just didn't find the time in my life to do something I was supposed to do."

In Arlington, officials said, it was the parents of some refugee children -- rather than people born and educated in the United States -- who spurred them to look at the problem of illiteracy in the county.

Teachers in the schools' English as a Second Language (ESOL) and High Intensity Language Training (HILT) programs often sent students home with notes and announcements translated into the family's native Khmer, Spanish or Vietnamese.

They gradually realized, said ESOL/HILT project coordinator Kathy Panfil, that the translations frequently were meaningless because many of the parents of refugee children were illiterate in their own languages as well.

That realization helped prompt a March conference on literacy and a $70,000 appropriation from the Arlington County Board to fund language training for people who do not speak English.

The problems of native-born illiterate adults also hit home, and the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia received public funding -- $10,000 from Arlington County and $30,000 from Fairfax County -- for the first time this year.

All four area literacy councils -- from Northern Virginia, Montgomery County, Prince George's County and the District -- recently formed a coalition to share information and referrals.

And Washington soon will be the site of a national demonstration project, being tested in 25 locations nationwide, in which people over 55 are recruited to teach literacy to others of the same age.

Nearly all teachers of literacy agree that adult students need to build confidence and self-esteem as much as they need to learn spelling rules and consonant blends.

"For the majority of adults, it's a problem of having failed in other programs and fearing failing again," said Michael Fox, executive director of the District's Push Literacy Action Now (PLAN). "It's going through 12 years of school believing that next year someone was going to teach them how to read, and it didn't happen."

For Victor, an employe for a Northern Virginia furniture company, the fear of failing or being embarrassed by illiteracy was nearly paralyzing.

Victor, who asked that his last name not be used, moved from New York with his wife 2 1/2 years ago and delayed looking for a job for four months because he panicked at the prospect of filling out applications.

He had dropped out of Manhattan's Vocational and Technical High School in the 10th grade and said he feared being humiliated if an employer asked him to write down his experience or educational background.

"I couldn't spell 'Manhattan,' let alone 'vocational,' " Victor said. "I thought, here I am, 34 years old, and I can't even fill out a simple application."

In restaurants, Victor said, he would order the same thing every time. He memorized one bus route and never took a different one. Early this year, an unemployment counselor advised him to seek tutoring.

Literacy experts and the adults they teach say the process is painstaking, but rich with the excitement of cracking a code -- sounding out a street sign for the first time or looking up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary.

After four months of twice-weekly sessions, Victor said, "I could bring myself to pick up a book and try to read it. Before, why bother trying if I would know only two words and the third would stop me?"

Mary Ratan can write letters now and order from catalogues, but she wants to learn enough to read the Bible to her children: "That's what I want to do more than anything else," she said.

Gilbert Hughes can slowly decipher letters that come to the house and read the dialogue in comic strips, although the letters U and W sometimes confuse him.

"It's no fun -- not at first," he said. "I guess it will be later, when you can read different books."

Hughes hopes eventually to read the newspaper or books on history or one of the heavy hard-backed volumes his friends sometimes carry. "It must be nice to do that," he said.