Children are not reading enough books or stories from different cultures and countries, leading to "ignorance and intolerance", it was claimed this week.
The national curriculum requires pupils to read "texts drawn from a variety of cultures and traditions", but recent research by the Office for Standards in Inspection and the now defunct School Curriculum and Assessment Authority found there was "little evidence" of this, especially in primary classes.
ActionAid, a development charity, said in a new report that the pressure to emphasise grammar, spelling and punctuation meant work on cultural or overseas issues was given the lowest priority. It believes children get a distorted view of life in developing countries from often out-dated books.
Taahra Ghazi, ActionAid education officer, said literature from diverse backgrounds could help develop core skills.
She said: "Wide-ranging books can help with knowledge of language, can introduce new vocabulary and, as is recommended at key stage 2, often have challenging subject matter. Delivering those skills through such literature can help children across other areas."
The report comes as Education Secretary David Blunkett encouraged schools to "turn a page and open the world", as he launched the Government's Pounds 50 million literacy drive, the National Year of Reading.
The Year is intended to meet the Government's literacy target for 2002, that is, for 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach the required standards for their age.
At present 40 per cent of them fail to do so.
Mr Blunkett said: "On the brink of the 21st century this is simply not good enough." He expected the year to cause "nothing less than a sea change in the nation's attitude to reading".
During the year, which begins next September, Pounds 21m will be spent on literacy training for 190,000 primary teachers and Pounds 19m will provide new books for many schools.
A total of Pounds 5m has been earmarked for the third phase of the National Literacy and Numeracy project, Pounds 4m to train specialist classroom assistants to support literacy teaching and Pounds 1m for innovative approaches to literacy teaching in secondary schools.
Mr Blunkett said: "Teachers alone cannot raise our children's literacy standards to the necessary levels.
"The year will be a crusade to promote reading and to engage the help of everyone - parents and grandparents, schools and employers, libraries and booksellers, local authorities and LEAs - in a national effort."
OPINION, Michael Barber, Page 22
* ActionAid has launched a new school's guide Hadithi Nzuri (Swahili for 'a good story'), which lists nearly 200 children's books from more than 30 countries, together with a range of English and geography activities. Available from ActionAid, Hamlyn House, Macdonald Road, London N19 5PG).