FLORENCE SIMMONS is a reformed drug addict. In a moving interview on a recent McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, she told of her efforts to help New York City children stay away from the drugs which nearly ruined her.She said she believes the first step is teaching children to take responsibility for their own actions. One obstacle is low self-esteem. When Ms. Simmons went into classrooms with her message that drugs are a dead-end, she saw that for these children, school itself is a dead-end. "They don't know what to do with the books. They can't read what the teacher writes on the chalkboard," Simmons said. "These are fourth graders. They have second grade books, and they can't even read those," she said later. "The teachers yell. They send kids down to special ed, or punish them by putting them in first or second grade for a week - as if these kids don't feel bad enough already." Simmons and Dr. Carl Kline, a Vancouver child and adolescent psychiatrist and international expert on learning disabilities, have never met. But when Simmons went into classrooms, worried about the demoralization of children who aren't learning how to read, she stepped into Dr. Kline's territory. Kline says reading disability is "the leading cause of emotional problems in children and adolescents in North America," and estimates that reading problems affect as many as 35 percent of children in United States and Canadian schools - constituting an epidemic. With his wife Carolyn, an education consultant, Kline has worked with more than 4,000 learning-disabled children. Like Simmons, the Klines are dedicated to helping children overcome problems that lead to discouragement, dropping out, and drug use. They face a formidable but not well-understood adversary - misguided reading instruction in US and Canadian public schools. They fault schools for not teaching children the systematic relationship between speech sounds and the letters and letter combinations wh ich make up printed words. Without this training, children have trouble "decoding" words in print. They try to memorize or guess at words by their shape - as if English, an alphabetic system, were Chinese picture writing. Forced to treat words as puzzles and reading as a guessing game, many normal youngsters develop dyslexia and emotional problems. Despite numerous surveys of the research showing decoding (phonics) works best, 85 percent of public schools use "look-say/whole language" (WL) methods and omit decoding. Education journals refuse to publish the work of qualified scholars who question the effectiveness of look-say/WL. Teacher colleges train teachers to use only this method. In his book, "Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders," the late Dr. Hilde Mosse, for 20 years a New York City Board of Education psychiatrist, writes, "The close relationship between violent and nonviolent juvenile delinquency [including drug use] and reading disorders has been well-documented. The causative chain starts with the fact that the child is not taught reading properly." THE experiences of these experts suggest that flawed reading methods, like illegal drugs, cause incalculable damage to children and adolescents. Victims of "reading abuse," who learn in primary school to see themselves as stupid and worthless, may turn to drug abuse out of frustration. Another psychiatrist, Dr. John J. Cannell, notes that drug abuse, delinquency, pregnancy, depression, and suicide are symptoms of low esteem in teenagers. Sending his young patients to a clinical psychologist for academic tests, he found: "Many adolescents with self-esteem problems were sitting in seventh grade general studies classrooms with third grade reading abilities." But school officials said they "scored well" on standardized tests given in school, in contrast to their performance on independentl y administered tests. (This discovery led to Cannell's "Lake Wobegon" study, which showed widespread irregularities in school reports of academic achievement scores in reading, writing, and math.) Professors who promote ineffective look-say/WL tell prospective teachers to expect 30 percent of children to fail at reading. Instead of blaming the reading method, these educators want teachers, the public, and the media to blame poverty or parents or "lazy" children. Yet research shows that nearly all children learn to read if they're taught decoding. Like Simmons, who is dedicated to helping children say no to drugs, the Klines and others are working to prevent the needless misery of an epidemic of reading disability. But they can't do the job alone. They need help from parents, business people, and concerned citizens who must insist that their schools prevent reading problems. If educators would heed the research and take the guesswork out of reading, there would be less need to blame school failure on poverty, families, television, and children the mselves. As Simmons says, "The kids feel bad enough already."