Just suppose, says Dr. William Strong, that we taught our children how to talk the way we have traditionally taught them how to write. You know, with plenty of red marks criticizing every little grammatical error.

"If we taught kids to talk this way," argues Strong, "we'd have a state full of mutes."Learning to write, like learning to talk, works better if you think less about the end product and more about the process, says Strong, co-director of the Utah Writing Project.

To learn to write it helps if you understand that process and you practice a lot. It's also important to have an audience that reads what you've written and gently nudges you toward improvement.

The problem, though, is that in Utah the student's primary audience is already buried in paperwork. The average secondary teacher has at least 150 students; it only takes some quick math to understand what that means.

"Take 150 students and multiply that times 200 words," says Strong. "That's 30,000 words. A short novel." That's a lot of hours, and that's

assuming each student's paper is only 200 words, or that it's possible to read the student's handwriting. And then, of course, the teacher has to respond to each paper. And that's just one assignment.

And that, says Strong, is why Utah needs "lay readers" - members of the community who volunteer their time to be a thoughtful audience for Utah's budding writers.

This is David Catron's second year as a lay reader at Skyline High School. One night a couple of weeks ago Catron got home from his job as director of the University of Utah Press and sat down to read 20 students essays. Eleven hours later, which would make it about 4 a.m., Catron finished putting his last remark on the last essay.

Hundreds of Salt Lakers have similarly been volunteering some of their free time since the lay reader program began a few years ago in the Granite and Salt Lake school districts; a third program is just getting under way in the Jordan district. The programs are operating at the elementary, junior high and high school level, although not in every class or in every school.

Community response, say program organizers, has been enthusiastic. Skyline High, for example, has 55 lay readers this year, some of whom do not even have children in the school.

Judy Stone, an English teacher and faculty coordinator of the lay reader program at Skyline, leafs through a stack of student papers. Attached to each essay is a page of lay reader response, full of insight, encouragement and the challenge to think deeper or to word something more effectively.

"I like your easy style," begins one such critique, "your rich allusions, your seductive flow of ideas. These are real strengths. You have a rich imagination and an enthusiasm for your subject, and it shows. But you need to tame all this energy, harness it. Where's your thesis?"

Lay readers, or "associate readers," as they are known in the Salt Lake district, are trained in the proper lay reader tone - upbeat and constructive.

"It's discouraging to get back a critique that says `this stinks,' " notes Catron, who says he tries to compliment his young writers, and soften his negative comments with phrases such as "you might want to consider this."

"One of the things we know about writing," adds the Utah Writing Project's William Strong, "is that it's linked to how you feel about yourself. If we come on too strong too early with criticism, it shuts the student off."

Strong and Dr. Charles Duke, both professors of secondary education at Utah State University, started the Utah Writing Project 10 years ago as part of a national movement to improve writing skills in American schools. Since then the two have trained over 500 Utah teachers in the writing process.

In the past, notes Strong, teachers often just gave their students a topic and said "Write!" Now, instead of focusing on the end product, teachers stress the "pre-write" stage - in which the writer brainstorms, does research and organizes his thoughts - and the revision stage.

Students are now beginning even at the first-grade level to learn these techniques. Second grade teacher Afton Smith of Taylorsville Elementary already has her students writing short stories in the style of "Pippi Longstocking." These are then read by one of the school's 22 lay readers.

Skyline teacher Stone, who has been one of the key players in expanding the lay reader program to other schools and districts, says that students, too, appreciate their new audiences.

As one of her students wrote in assessing the lay reader program: "I always try to do better on something when I know someone's going to sit down in a recliner at 7:29 and really go through my paper. Lay readers give a truthful and impersonal look at myself and I'm beginning to like it."