Children who can't read can't learn," remarked David Blunkett when he was education secretary. Of course he was right – although that's not the only reason reading matters. Books also bring tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction. Reading them breeds tolerance and understanding of other ways of living, places, times and cultures. It develops concentration, self-reliance and confidence, as well as building vocabulary, use of language and general knowledge.
Some children are totally hooked. "I like fantasy and adventure books by authors like Anthony Horowitz and Derek Landy and getting pulled into books to the point when you can't put them down," says Harry Smurthwaite, 12. "I love playing Xbox, too, but I like to imagine the characters in books which you can't do with a computer game because the visual effects are all done for you."
Eve Attwood, aged eight, agrees. "I like reading because when you read a book it takes you to the place you're reading about. For example, if someone was reading about a castle and they were really enjoying the book it might take them to the castle in their mind."
But not all children and young people, especially boys, agree with Eve and Harry. Although it was a children's author, Jacqueline Wilson – Eve's favourite – who topped the polls for the most borrowings (16 million) from public libraries in the past decade, fewer than half of all children aged nine to 14 read fiction more than once a month according to a survey published last month by the National Literacy Trust.
A recent ChildWise survey found that 42 per cent of boys aged 11-16 never read books for pleasure. And last year's Government figures showed that nearly a tenth of 14-year-old boys have a reading age of just nine.
"Too many boys simply aren't aware of the concept that reading can be for pleasure's sake alone," says the Football Association's editor-in-chief Dan Freedman, who also writes the Jamie Johnson novels about a football prodigy. Freedman is a frequent visitor to schools and promoter of reading.
One of the problems is that we have lost sight of what we mean by "can read" and "can't read". Nearly all children eventually learn to turn the squiggles on the page, paper or noticeboard into words. They may not be very quick or fluent, but when they see "Danger" or "Menu", they know what it means. Very few children in the developed world reach adulthood in a state of total illiteracy.
By the age of seven most can stumble through a passage from a book while an adult listens. It's decoding. Real reading is what you learn to do once you've cracked the code.
It's like swimming. Getting your 10-metre certificate is not the end of your swimming career. It's the beginning. Now that you can stay afloat and use a stroke or two to propel yourself along, you can strike out, build up your swimming stamina and enjoy the water. It's just the same with reading. Children need to grow into strong, confident "deep-end" readers.
Sadly, this is a stage and a concept which is often neglected. It's easy to think that once Chloe or Jack "can read", the job is done. But imagine passing your driving test, walking out of the test centre and not getting behind the wheel again for five or 10 years. The skill, unconsolidated and developed, would probably have gone.
So what are the factors which impede deep-end reading? John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders told his organisation's 2010 conference that children are harder to motivate in the internet age because children spend an average 1.7 hours online, 1.5 hours on games consoles and 2.7 hours watching television each day. "They live in a celebrity dominated society where success seems to come instantly and without any real effort," he said. And learning to read properly requires effort – although it's effortless once you can do it.
Another problem is dependence on subvocalising, which fast and fluent readers don't do. A subvocaliser reads every word aloud to him or herself, inside the head but without speaking. A strong deep-end reader can read a piece of text quickly for meaning without having to "translate" each individual word into a sound.
Only practice gets a child to this confident stage. That's why enlightened schools set aside time every day for silent, independent reading. As with any other skill, the more you do it, the faster you get.
So what can we do? Well, at home, subtle strategies work best; piously commanding children to read because it's good for them is likely to turn them off instantly.
Read to babies every day from birth and don't stop until the child of 10, 11, 12 or whatever insists that he or she no longer wants you to do it. Children who hear stories and are shown books are far more likely to develop a lifelong love of reading than those who aren't.
Make sure that children see lots of grown-ups reading habitually, borrowing books from libraries, buying books and talking about books. Then children don't get the message that reading is a childish thing, like skipping or conkers, that you stop doing when you grow up because your attention is claimed by more important things.
That is especially important for the adult males in a boy's life. If a reluctant-to-read boy sees a man he respects – father, male relative, carer, teacher, sports hero – with a book in his hand, reading becomes cool.
Dan Freedman, who claims to have been a reluctant reader in boyhood, says: "I can see boys' attitude to reading thaw as I tell them how similar I was to them... how I started off thinking reading was boring but now I read and write for pleasure – an entirely new concept for many boys."
That is why the National Reading Campaign (NRC) has set up its Reading Champions project. "Its purpose is to celebrate men and boys who enjoy and promote reading in order to encourage others to do likewise," says Julia Strong, NRC's director. It is also why the National Literacy Trust ( literacytrust.org.uk) publishes an online magazine called Getting the Blokes on Board.
Bridge Academy in Hackney has large cheerful photographs of staff members reading books displayed around the building. The captions below simply state the adult's name and the title of the book. It's a simple example of how reading can be role-modelled quietly but positively in school.
We cannot afford to let our children fail to develop the reading habit. In 2003 a study in 37 countries by the Programme for International Student Assessment found that the most important factor for academic success was the amount of time pupils spent reading; books, magazines, newspapers and websites. But reading books makes the biggest difference, according to this and other studies.
And just think of the pleasure and general development a child who doesn't read books is deprived of. If such a loss were imposed on children it would rightly be regarded as a form of abuse. It can't be allowed to happen by default.
Susan Elkin is a journalist and former teacher. Her book 'Encouraging Reading' is published by Continuum at £9.99
Six tips to encourage reading
* Never "rubbish" anything a child wants to read. Even the flimsiest, trashiest material helps build reading stamina
* Value all reading, including web pages, instructions and magazines
* Be seen absorbed in books yourself, especially if you are male and the child is a boy
* Take children to bookshops, libraries and book-related events
* Read children's books yourself and show real interest in them
* Restrict time spent with TV and computers and do not allow them in children's bedrooms; not difficult if you start as you mean to go on
Titles to tempt young readers
'Saving Rafael' by Leslie Wilson (Romeo and Juliet, set in Nazi Berlin) 12+
'My Sister Jodie' by Jacqueline Wilson (sibling rivalry between children of boarding- school staff) 9+
'Keeper' by Mal Peet (football thriller set in South America, first of a trilogy) 12+
'Chains' by Laurie Halse Anderson (slavery escape, set in 18th-century revolutionary New York) 10+
'Burn My Heart' by Beverley Naidoo (Mau Mau-period friendship of black and white boy in Kenya) 9+Reuse content