Psychologists believe they have found an answer to one of the most troubling challenges facing teachers, "the endemic problems of educational underachievement in disadvantaged areas".
But a study just published concludes that nursery schools must rethink their curriculum and education authorities reallocate resources to the early years.
The research, by Tommy MacKay of Strathclyde University's psychology department and Kate Watson of West Dunbartonshire's psychology service, was funded by the former Strathclyde Region and the Scottish Office.
Mr MacKay wants local authorities with half of their primary schools in areas of deprivation to commit themselves to a target of raising the average reading standard of every year group in every school above the national norm. All children should recognise not fewer than 20 lower case letters by the end of their first year, he says.
The researchers worked with 46 pupils from two primary 1 classes selected for special intervention and matched them against 44 pupils from two other schools in the same area, all of which had "endemic levels of reading failure". Children were assessed on measures of reading readiness, reading achievement and attitudes to education.
Mr MacKay and Ms Watson say the foundations have now been laid for long-term improvements in reading standards. Five months of intervention gave the children in the experimental group significantly better results, particularly in phonological skills.
The reasons, the report suggests, are an emphasis on rhyme and alliteration, home support to encourage reading, improving pupil attitudes and values, and stepping up direct instruction in reading by adding a nursery nurse to the primary 1 classroom.
Mr MacKay argues: "Current views on the nursery curriculum should be challenged and there should be a focus on those skills which are most likely to prevent reading failure later, including a wide range of phonological skills and familiarity with the alphabet.
"Education authorities should also consider the benefits of investing as much as possible in enhancing literacy at the P1 level."
North Ayrshire has become the latest authority to tackle early literacy problems, centring on six council-run nurseries beginning next August. A report approved by the education committee endorses Mr MacKay's view that the nursery curriculum needs overhauling to emphasise the importance of language and the printed word.