The senior Scottish Executive figure in charge of assessment warned the conference that weaknesses in English have not responded to initiatives.
Carolyn Hutchinson, head of the assessment branch in the Executive's education department, said the last Assessment of Achievement Programme survey of English showed that between 1998 and 2001 schools spent more time on English language, there was more setting and broad-banding in S1 and S2, more use of national tests and very little change in teaching and assessment.
The 2000 international Pisa study on attainment, which ranked Scotland sixth in reading literacy among 15-year-olds in OECD countries, confirmed messages from other studies that there was "a much wider spread of attainment" between the best and worst pupil performance compared with the top-scoring countries.
The Scottish figures from the Pisa study linked high attainment to pupils'
interest and enjoyment in reading, the amount of homework and the family's social status.
But Ms Hutchinson said that the evidence showed no "inevitable link" between low attainment and deprivation. Setting and streaming were not the answer. "To improve attainment in language, we need to address poor motivation and lack of engagement and enthusiasm."