We are living in a golden age for children's fiction. Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) and Michael Morpurgo's War Horse are both set to dominate screen and stage this Christmas. How is it that when books are so good, so many children dislike the idea of reading?
The latest report of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) puts literacy under the microscope again. England has slipped from third to 19th in the world rankings and reading scores for 10-year-olds have fallen. The drop is due to lower achievement among the best and better readers, suggesting brighter pupils are bored by the way literacy is taught. Among the underachievers, it is boys who dislike reading most - a quarter said they never read stories or novels out of school.
The findings are no reason to panic. England's reading score is still comfortably above the average and broadly in line with other Western countries. We must reflect that league tables are crude measures, one reason why St Paul's School is considering pulling out of newspaper lists of top-performing schools (page 3). And we cannot be sure of the reliability of league tables. Next week sees the publication of another big study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which looks set to show that the UK's performance in English, maths and science was not quite as good as it reported in 2001.
The Pirls study raises vital questions. What are we to make of its finding that reading scores have dipped since 2001, while the Government's own key stage 2 tests record an improvement? Who should we believe? Is the truth, as the Primary Review suggested earlier this month, that reading standards have barely changed in 55 years? Either way, reading standards are not good enough. Too many pupils underperform and too many are switched off by a mechanised approach to literacy.
The answer lies in putting joy back into literacy and a move away from our national obsession with testing and tables. West Thornton School in Croydon has shown what can be achieved through good practice and promoting reading as a great thing to do.
Messrs Pullman and Morpurgo, both former teachers, have championed a return to reading for pleasure as a daily activity in primary schools. It's time to put the fun back into reading.