A leading academic is calling for a review of A-level English syllabuses amid claims that school pupils are increasingly poorly read.
Martin Dodsworth of Royal Holloway College, University of London, wants a review of A-level reading lists, taking into account a wider historical range of work.
Professor Dodsworth, chairman of the English language and literature research assessment panel, says that it is increasingly apparent that English literature degree course candidates have glaring gaps in their knowledge, particularly of 17th, 18th and, increasingly, 19th-century prose and poetry.
Professor Dodsworth says that works from these periods are losing ground against 20th-century books and that A-level students appear reluctant to read anything other than the prescribed reading list texts.
He said: "The reading appears very much weighted towards this century with a yawning gap between Chaucer and Shakespeare and the 19th-century novels. Most of the applicants are not great readers. The A-level English syllabuses ought to be encouraging students to read."
Professor Dodsworth also believes there is a lack of imagination when it comes to selecting 20th-century authors with a concentration on greats such as Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck rather than Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
He has been backed by other eminent English professors including John Burrow at Bristol University, and Andrew Hook at Glasgow. Professor Burrow said: "I do not know whether A-level syllabuses are the cause or whether they are a reflection of the fact that young people read less. Either way, it does not augur well."
Professor Hook said there should be more study of early 19th, late 18th and 17th century works.
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority says that it has little power to prescribe A-level courses but says that 20th-century novels may be becoming more popular because of the relative ease with which, in the face of cuts, schools and pupils can get modern books.
An Associated Examining Board spokesman said that there was no need to revise syllabuses since there was provision for the sorts of works, such as Marlowe, Milton, and Donne, for which the academics are calling.