Despite two centuries of change, many disadvantaged children are still facing the same literacy problems experienced in Victorian times, claims the schools minister
Nick Gibb warned that there are "shadows of Dickens's world in our own". He called for schools to be "more ambitious" in encouraging children to read to a high standard, and suggested that all pupils should have read at least one Dickens novel by the end of their teenage years.
Reaching the expected standard in reading should be the "minimum expected", he added.
In a speech at a south London secondary school, Gibb said 60% of white boys eligible for free school meals - a measure of poverty - cannot read properly at the age of 14 and only two thirds of boys eligible for free dinners read at the expected level at seven.
Speaking on the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, Gibb said that in the author's time, "literacy was a gift for the few".
"Today, almost everyone reads and writes," he said. "We blog, we tweet, report, comment, email and update to an astonishing extent.
"The chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, estimated we create as much information every two days on the internet as was produced in the entire history of mankind up until 2003.
"But even after two centuries of technological and social revolution, there are still shadows of Dickens's world in our own - with literacy problems remaining asymmetric and heavily orientated towards the poorest in our communities."
Gibb added: "We need - if you'll forgive the Dickens pun - much greater expectations of children in reading."
He warned that the numbers of children reading at Level 5 or over - the standard above that expected of 11-year-olds has stalled.
"The challenge for schools today is to be more ambitious," Gibb said. "Ask whether the 'expected level' is actually good enough. We can't pretend we don't have a problem - or pretend that the 'expected' level is good enough.
"We need to raise our sights beyond 'ok'. By the end of primary school, we want children to be able to read fluently, to interpret a book's meaning, and be able to enjoy more complex books by the likes of [Michael] Morpurgo, [Jacqueline] Wilson and [Roald] Dahl.
"Every young person should have read at least one Dickens novel by the end of their teenage years."
Gibb suggested that computer games and TV are distracting youngsters from reading, later adding that sometimes young people should "actively" choose a book over such activities.
"One could argue that young people have many competing (and important) demands on their time with the attractions of social media, TV, games consoles and smart phones," he said.
"But it is gravely concerning to see this country's young people falling out of love with reading, especially when literature still has such a unique and irreplaceable part to play in our lives."
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