Standards in English are improving, but not fast enough, with boys still lagging behind girls, Ofsted reported today.
The schools watchdog found that teaching of the subject had improved only slowly since 2004 and that the gender gap performance began when children were aged just five.
"This report presents a challenge to schools," said Christine Gilbert, chief schools inspector. "There is a significant gap between the most effective schools and the rest.
"The most effective provide a dynamic and productive English curriculum, responding to changes in society and pupils' literacy needs and leading to higher standards. However, too much English teaching is no better than satisfactory and too many pupils are not able to make the progress they then need to catch up."
But the report, English at the Crossroads, did find teaching was good or outstanding in 70 per cent of lessons, and that very few were inadequate. Standards in writing were lower than reading in primary schools. But overall, primary provision was better than secondary.
Pupils of all ages from Chinese and Indian backgrounds consistently achieved above national averages, while black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani children performed below. White British boys eligible for free school meals were among the lowest performers.
Where provision was weak, department heads and subject leaders had "introduced change in an uncritical way and did not have a clear understanding of where improvements were needed or how they might be achieved".
But the English curriculum was good or outstanding in more than three- quarters of primaries and just less than two-thirds of secondaries.
The report calls for schools to focus on helping pupils become independent learners, improving assessment, raising boys' performance and improving the teaching of writing.
They should also review their curriculum for English to take account of developments ICT particularly at key stage 3.
The most effective schools used speaking and listening activities to help pupils think for themselves.