Test results due next week show that after three years of impressive gains, England's 11-year-olds have only managed a slight advance this year of between two and three percentage points. Boys are continuing to fare badly.
In response, ministers intend to point out that schools taking part in the National Literacy Strategy are performing significantly better than average.
The Government has promised that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds will be reading and writing at the expected standard - level 4 on the key stage 2 national curriculum tests - by 2002.
The new test results show that between 65 and 66 per cent of 11-year-olds are now at the target level, with four years to go. If this slow rate of progress is maintained, then the 80 per cent target will be missed.
Until now the improvement in English overall has been extremely encouraging. In 1995, 48 per cent of children reached the target, in 1996 it was 58 and in 1997, 63 per cent. Underlying this, however, is a big difference in the achievements of boys and girls - girls far outstrip boys.
There is also a worrying gap in performance between the two main components of the test: reading and writing. More than 70 percent of 11-year- olds already read at level 4; but less than 60 per cent hit that standard in writing.
In order to achieve further progress, ministers will have to consider how to encourage boys, particularly in the field of writing.