In the Washington area, the Council of Governments is starting a Literacy Network. In Virginia, Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, as have more than a dozen governors across the nation, has launched a Literacy Initiative.

Across the country, adult reading programs have burgeoned over the past few years, spurred by network television appeals and literacy drives sponsored by lawyers, newspaper publishers and business groups.

Yet, despite the national fanfare, the extent of adult illiteracy is a matter of major dispute, with leading scholars on the subject contending that the problem of illiteracy in America has been much exaggerated and misunderstood.

While literacy programs experienced a major surge in teacher volunteers after a publicity campaign last fall, the number of enrollees increased only modestly. And the number who "graduate" by passing a fourth-grade level reading test remains small -- 47 during the past year in Prince George's County, 21 in Northern Virginia and 15 in Montgomery County, according to the organizations that tutor illiterates. The D.C. group providing literacy training compiles no data on its results.

"There is very little empirical evidence to justify . . . {the contention} that America has a massive problem of adult illiteracy," said David Harman, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, who has studied illiteracy for almost two decades.

Instead, said Harman, who is principal investigator for a U.S. Education Department study on methods of teaching illiterates, "the largest literacy problem in the U.S. today is . . . the diminution of the value of reading as an activity." As a result, he said, there are a large number of adults "who can read but don't" or have major deficiencies in reading comprehension and analytical skills.

A government-financed survey of young adults last year found that 97 percent could read at least at a basic level -- well enough to understand simple, specific material, such as a short sports story in a newspaper. Ninety-four percent read at a fourth-grade level or above.

However, the survey found that 45 percent lacked the analytical skills needed to read and explain relatively complicated information. About 20 percent scored below the average for eighth graders. Almost 40 percent were below the average for 11th grade, even though 85 percent said they had graduated from high school.

"It's an insult to call these people {between the fifth and 10th grade reading level} illiterate or functionally illiterate. Most do function on their jobs," said Thomas G. Sticht, who has conducted major research on reading for the U.S. Army and the Ford Foundation. "These are midlevel literates. They do have problems. Their flexibility is limited. What they need are some genuine education and training programs, not a simple-minded crusade."

This contrast between the "crisis" rhetoric of political figures -- from Barbara Bush, wife of the vice president, to D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) -- and the caution of education researchers dominated a conference on illiteracy earlier this month at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. The event was sponsored by the Education Writers Association with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, which has launched a literacy campaign.

At the conference, the scholars also challenged three principal arguments of proponents of literacy programs: That the advent of high technology will require a better educated work force. Although increased reading ability will be needed in a small percentage of jobs, Harman said, U.S. Department of Labor estimates indicate that the greatest growth over the next 15 years will be in retail, office and nursing jobs that do not require advanced reading skills. That greater literacy will produce economic growth. Harman and Sticht noted that many companies have moved operations to places with cheap, relatively poorly educated labor. What may be crucial, they said, is the dependability of a labor force and how well it can be managed and trained, not its general educational level -- although a small cadre of highly educated, creative people is essential to innovation and growth.

Sticht said his studies of the U.S. military indicate that many fairly complicated jobs can be done well by people with low reading levels. That improved reading is crucial to raising the status of the "underclass." Both researchers said ending discrimination and changing values are probably more important than reading in moving low-income families into the middle class.

"We ought to emphasize literacy as a national objective," Harman said. "But it's an escape from dealing with the real, very complicated problems of disadvantage to say we can teach people reading and unemployment and family problems will be reduced . . . . There's a value to reading in people's lives that transcends putting a widget in a wadget. Literacy is a value, not a mechanical skill."

Jeanne Chall, a professor of education at Harvard who directs its reading laboratory, warned the conferees that the highly publicized concern about illiteracy should not obscure the gains that American schools have made during the past 15 years in teaching basic reading skills.

Up to fourth grade, Chall said, the gains have been most substantial among low-income blacks, though they continue to lag behind other groups.

"It's at fourth grade and above that we have a reading slump," Chall said. "That's where children begin to use reading as a tool for learning. They need the vocabulary and knowledge of the world to read well and to gain in comprehension. And that's where the schools need improvement."

At this level, where the most widespread problems occur, reading is no longer primarily a matter of decoding the alphabet and understanding simple paragraphs, which is the focus of most literacy training programs, Chall said.

"To understand the materials read at fourth grade and above requires knowledge of complicated literary language and knowledge of the world," Chall said.

"The students need more context and more content. Illiteracy is the wrong label for their problem."

Chall said she agrees with the main theme of University of Virginia Prof. E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s best-selling book "Cultural Literacy" that Americans need more knowledge of history and society to read well.

"You must go outside {a person's} experience," Chall said. "If {education} is relevant and doesn't go beyond that, it will be no good."

In a telephone interview later, Karl O. Haigler, director of the Reagan administration's adult literacy initiative, said he respects the caution of the scholars, but believes the United States has a "major adult literacy problem." Even if the lowest estimates of illiteracy are accepted, "we're talking about 7.2 million people and that's not an insignificant number," Haigler said.

Until recently, adult illiteracy "has been seen as a very marginal problem," Haigler said. "Who cares? Now more people are caring and we think we may get some results."

Yet, from 1985 to 1986 -- the most recent years for which data is available -- enrollment of American-born adults in federally funded adult basic education programs dropped by about a quarter, according to the Education Department. Meanwhile, the number of foreign-born enrollees, learning to read English as their second language, soared by almost 50 percent. They outnumbered U.S.-born students in basic literacy classes -- up to the eighth grade level -- by 1.2 million to 946,000.

"The immigrants are coming to our doorstep in large numbers because the incentive to learn English is so great," said Ronald Pugsley, chief of program services for federal adult education programs. "But the others {who have difficulty reading} are not coming in droves. You have to reach out."

Speaking at the Harvard conference, John Garvey, program director of the New York City Literacy Assistance Center, said literacy programs in New York City have a $22 million annual budget, but "have not been very successful in recruiting beginning readers."

While English reading classes for immigrants have a waiting list, Garvey said there is "chronic underenrollment of {American} basic education students." Officials of literacy programs in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., reported similar problems. They added that the dropout rates in their programs are high.

According to Harman, more than 50 percent of adults in basic reading programs nationwide quit before completing their courses and about half of those who finish the programs "regress to a marginal state" of reading within a year.

Harman said the frequently cited estimates of the number of adult illterates "are all over the place -- 23 million, 45 million, 60 million. They are all extrapolations from rather shoddily done research."

Harman and Sticht strongly criticized the Adult Performance Level study conducted by University of Texas researchers in 1975, which has been used as the basis for literacy estimates by such dissimilar figures as President Reagan and writer Jonathan Kozol.

Sticht said Kozol, a radical education reformer, showed a "silly understanding of literacy" in his 1985 book "Illiterate America," which said that one-third of American adults, about 60 million people, are "functionally illiterate."

"That's an astronomical figure," Sticht said. "There's a misdiagnosis of what our problem is."