Standards of English in state schools have stalled, despite a multi-billion pound drive to improve literacy, according to Ofsted.
Improvements have been "slow" at all ages, holding back pupils from five to 16, it was claimed.
In a report published on Friday, the watchdog warned that serious concerns also remained over boys, as schools failed to narrow the gender gap. White boys from poor homes were the worst performers, it said.
The best schools were forced to make lessons more "lively" - even employing horror films and rap music - in an attempt to get them interested.
It comes despite a strong push on the three-Rs by Labour over the last decade.
They have put English and mathematics at the centre of education policy in primary and secondary schools. It includes the adoption of a national literacy strategy for under-11s, one-on-one booster classes for all pupils falling behind and an overhaul of league tables to emphasise the importance of English at GCSE.
But Opposition MPs said the latest report showed the Government was "still failing to get the basics right in our education system".
David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: "Reading and writing standards are improving far too slowly. This report shows the difference that excellent teaching can make. Instead of stifling teachers, ministers need to give them more freedom to work creatively and get the best from all their pupils."
Ofsted investigated standards of English at almost 250 primary and secondary schools between 2005 and 2008. The report - for schools in England - also analysed trends in national exam results.
Inspectors said there was a "slight decline in both reading and writing" among pupils aged five to seven. Among 11-year-olds, the proportion of pupils achieving the standard expected of their age "has risen very slowly over the last four years", said Ofsted.
The number of 16-year-olds with at least a grade C in GCSE English had "improved slowly" but more than a third failed to gain good scores, inspectors added.
The report said "substantial gaps" remained between boys and girls, as well as certain ethnic groups.
Pupils from Chinese and Indian backgrounds were the highest achievers, according to Ofsted,
"Little progress has been made in closing the gap between the performance of pupils who live in the most deprived areas of the country and those who live in the most affluent," said the report. "White British boys eligible for free school meals perform particularly poorly."
Ofsted said three-in-10 lessons were not good enough, with staff often guilty of using mundane tasks and worksheets. Some secondary teachers placed "too little emphasis on poetry, media, speaking and listening or drama", said the report.
But the best teachers brought the subject to life by employing popular culture, it added.
In one lesson for 14-year-olds, pupils were asked to explore the different camera shots used to create film effects, comparing styles with "comtemporary horror films".
Another class compared Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" to rap music, giving boys "more confidence" to talk about love and sex in poetry. By Graeme Paton, Education Editor Published: 7:01AM BST 19 Jun 2009