They are not interested in books and never read for fun outside of school hours, according to a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research.
Twenty-four per cent of the 5,299 pupils surveyed by the NFER said that they had no interest in books and 22 per cent never read for fun.
One of the researchers, Dr Greg Brooks, said: "This has to be connected with the long tail of underachievement that you find when you compare our distribution of reading scores with those of other industrialised countries. Kids who have a bad attitude don't read and they underachieve. Clearly the problems of pupils who have negative attitudes to reading or read infrequently for pleasure need to be tackled very early in their school lives."
Dr Brooks and his two colleagues, Dr Ian Schagen and Ms Peggy Nastat, also report that just under a third of the Year 3 pupils they questioned found some class books too difficult. "Given that these were young and relatively inexperienced readers, this is perhaps not too surprising," they say. "But it might mean that some would begin to find difficulty in keeping up with the developing curriculum in key stage 2."
Predictably, watching television and videos seemed to be much more popular than reading. Only 3 per cent of the eight-year-olds said that they never watched TV.
Nevertheless, the study also has some reassuring findings for those who worry about falling literacy standards. It shows that by 1995 - the year that the research was carried out - the reading scores of eight-year-olds had returned to their 1987 level after dipping in 1991. It also indicates that between two-thirds and three-quarters of children enjoy reading, two-thirds relish the challenge of using a library to find things out, and an unexpectedly high proportion (69 per cent) like reading poems.
Trends in Reading at Eight, a report on the 1995 survey of reading attainment in Year 3 in England and Wales, by Greg Brooks, Ian Schagen and Peggy Nastat, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research, Pounds 8.