Almost one in five boys are struggling to write their own name at the age of five, figures suggest.
Government statistics show a gender gap still remains, with girls outperforming boys in areas such as writing and counting before they start formal education.
Some 19 per cent of boys cannot write their own name, or short words like "dog" or "cat", compared to one in 10 (10 per cent) of girls.
And two fifths (59 per cent) of boys cannot write a simple shopping list, or a letter to Santa, compared to a fifth (21 per cent) of five-year-old girls.
Almost one in 10 (9 per cent) of boys cannot count up to 10, compared to 6 per cent of girls.
The statistics, for 2011, published by the Department for Education, show how many five-year-olds are achieving specific early learning "goals", including social skills, literacy and numeracy and emotional development.
Children's Minister Sarah Teather said: "It's encouraging to see a small improvement from last year. This is a testament to the hard work of early years professionals.
"However, it is not good enough that more than two out of five children start school without the solid foundation they need to succeed and that boys continue to lag behind girls.
"That's why we are improving the Early Years Foundation Stage and radically slimming down the curriculum so that it is more focused on getting children ready and able to take advantage of the opportunities they will get at school.
"From next September we are cutting down the number of early learning goals children need to reach at age five, with a stronger focus on the key skills that they will need to thrive as they grow up."