Children who are falling behind in reading are to receive individual catch-up lessons, the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has announced.
Ms Kelly says that the attainment gap between children from rich and poor families is not closing.
In a speech on education and social mobility, she called for greater efforts to stop children from low-income families failing in school.
"The talents of bright, but poor, children are too often being wasted."
Ms Kelly's speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research highlighted the link between family income and achievement at school - and announced efforts to give all children a more equal chance of succeeding.
This will include a "reading recovery" project in primary schools, where children who are struggling with literacy will receive one-to-one support to help them catch up - with the aim of tackling a persistent core of underachieving pupils.
These would provide "first, second and third chances to everyone" and would seek to help the poorest children, so that success would be determined by "their own ability and efforts" rather than being "predetermined by their background".
There will also be free books given to children under the age of four, to help foster an interest in reading and books.
The focus on raising achievement among the poorest pupils follows research from the government suggesting that they are failing to keep up with better-off classmates.
Even when schools in the most deprived areas have narrowed the gap slightly on other schools, individual pupils from the poorest homes are still falling behind.
The education secretary called for early intervention to prevent children falling behind - including initiatives to promote learning in the pre-school years.
Ms Kelly promised "searching questions" about how the government should work towards a "society where background is not barrier to success and social mobility is a reality".
And she warned against the cycle of underachievement among poorer children, where a lack of success in primary school laid the path for failure in secondary school.
Where pupils failed at 11, they were five times less likely to achieve five GCSEs when they were 16, she said.
"Our ambition must be to reduce the negative impact that a disadvantaged social background may have on educational attainment at all stages, particularly the early years and school years.
"Get this wrong and any talk of improved social justice is all too likely to be nothing more than warm words," Ms Kelly.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Dr Tessa Stone, director of the Sutton Trust, said that when it came to a pupil's level of achievement, the home background remained a greater influence than the school.
Since coming into power, the government has stressed the importance of education in breaking down social barriers and widening opportunity.
A longstanding feature of the education system has been the wide gap between high and low achievers - with this country having one of the worst educational drop-out rates in the industrialised world.
While only about half of school pupils in England achieve the basic benchmark of five GCSEs - about 90% of those who stay on beyond GCSE continue into higher education.
The Shadow Education Secretary, David Cameron, said the "failure to increase social mobility has been one of the biggest education failures of the last decade".
Mr Cameron put forward a five-step plan to make the education system help "those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds get to the top".
These were to put "synthetic phonics at the heart of literacy teaching", "allow head teachers to expel unruly pupils", "root out political correctness in teaching and exams", "give schools freedom to determine admissions" and "tear down the barrier between state and private education".