Children read a high-quality selection of modern fiction throughout their school careers, but few classics or works from other cultures.
A new Government survey of children's reading will be ammunition for traditionalists who accuse English teachers of failing to introduce the "canon" of great authors.
Teachers insist they teach the classics, but this week's report from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority found during one March week only 7 per cent of Year 8 classes (13-year-olds) and 4 per cent of 16-year-olds (Year 11) read pre-20th century fiction in school.
Meanwhile, 7 and 16 per cent respectively read classic poetry - often from the GCSE anthology, while 9 per cent of 13-year-olds and 24 per cent of 16-year-old GCSE candidates read Shakespeare.
Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of SCAA, was concerned at the gulf between classroom practice and curriculum guidance. He added: "A balance of reading is essential and it is perfectly reasonable to concentrate more on contemporary than earlier literature. This survey suggests that we have shifted too far."
The report, One week in March: a survey of the literature children read, was based on a study of 84 schools in 10 local authorities during March 1995. It was designed to provide a "snapshot" of reading before the revised national curriculum came into force in September.
It also shows that children read less and less widely as their education progresses. Year 3 pupils read from 132 authors; this figure narrowed to 27 authors in Year 11. Year 8 pupils' reading was the most limited. Of 74 classes surveyed, only one had studied a text from another culture, eight had studied classic poetry and six pre-20th century fiction.
By Year 6 (age 11) the most frequently-taught author was Ted Hughes. "Much of the reading recorded at key stage 2 comprised the teacher reading to the class," SCAA says.
By age 13, pupils' individual choices diverged radically from classroom reading. Year 8 and 11 pupils' choices included CD-Rom living books, film tie-ins as well as Andrew Davies and Virginia Woolf. Little pre-20th century literature was read for pleasure.
A few higher-ability 16-year-olds read Joanna Trollope, PD James and Terry Pratchett, but most choose Sweet Valley High, Babysitter Club and Point Horror books. Middle-ability pupils read these, Dahl and a range of contemporary authors. Roald Dahl was the most-mentioned author among the lower-ability pupils.