Fewer of England's 14-year-olds reached the expected literacy standard in tests last year, final figures confirm.
The dip in English bucks the trend of recent years
But the decline from 2005 was only half as bad as the provisional statistics issued last autumn had suggested.
The government said 73% attained Level 5 in English, down from 74%. In maths it was 77%, up three percentage points, and in science 72%, up two points.
There were widely varying performances in different types of school, with academies doing the worst.
Pupils in city technology colleges did best, with 93% making the grade in English, for example, compared with 64% in academies and 74% in all state-maintained schools.
The averages mask a pronounced gender gap in English: with 65% of boys reaching national curriculum Level 5, as expected for their age, compared with 80% of girls.
In science the gap was only two percentage points in girls' favour and in maths results were equal.
The percentage of students managing Level 5 in all three subjects was better than in the previous: 63% compared with 61%.
Schools minister Jim Knight hailed the improvements in science and maths, saying pupils, parents and teachers should be proud of their achievements.
He pledged that more personalised learning would address the fact that girls are doing better than boys.
This was the case across the industrialised world, he said.
"Internationally, teachers and educationalists are wrestling with it and the related societal issues.
"There are no any easy, overnight solutions we can prescribe to address this. I am determined that we enthuse and engage boys in English but this is about taking a far broader approach in schools and government than simply using stereotyped 'fighting and football' texts," he added.
Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb said results in English had fallen at a time when a significant rise in basic skills was needed.
"Level 5 is the minimum that 14-year-olds need to be able to benefit from secondary education.
"The fact that more than a quarter are not reaching this level is alarming, as is the fact that in 10% of secondary schools fewer than half the pupils are reaching this level.
"A thorough grasp of reading and writing is essential for success in later life. The fact we are still concerned about the literacy levels of 14-year-olds is a sad indictment of educational standards in this country," he added.
The statistics, published by the Department for Education and Skills on Wednesday, are based on the results collated for the annual school-by-school Key Stage 3 performance tables, published on Thursday.