Queensland University of Technology



Donna Lee Brien and Philip Neilsen



Why Don't Our Students Read?





As teachers of creative writing, it has become increasingly apparent to us, from classroom experience, anecdotal evidence, and from a review of previous research into reading habits, that the proportion of our students who are 'readers' is disconcertingly low. This paper will present a work-in-progress comment from an on-going study of the attitudes of creative writing students at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Both print and electronic material is taken into account when assessing fiction, nonfiction and literary reading habits. We also address student attitudes to reading, writing and other literary/cultural activities, and include results of a survey carried out this year, as well as strategies the Creative Writing Section at QUT is utilising to encourage reading among its students.



There are two kinds of people in the world, Ellie. The ones who watch TV and the ones who get things done. [1]

This paper presents preliminary findings of an ongoing study into the reading habits of creative writing students at QUT, in Brisbane. As such, it joins (as has been noted in a Griffith University Cultural Policy Paper of 1995 [2]) a surprisingly small number of studies of reading in comparable groups. There are many more studies of primary and secondary school students as 'readers', than studies of tertiary level students. This paper also takes the perspective that reading is an essential practice for anyone who wants to write. Indeed, at QUT, where we have been faced with increasing numbers of students who do not appear to be reading, we have taken to appending the cautionary motto 'You cannot be a writer without being a reader' to all our course outlines.

Even in the brave electronic age of the globalised 'new economy', reading remains the dominant mode of communication. It is a fact that, despite the invention of cyber-newscasters such as Annanova and sound responsive software, reading (and writing) text is the language of cyber-space.

The influential American body, the Associated Writing Programs, include in their statement 'Hallmarks of a Successful Undergraduate Program in Creative Writing' the confirmation that 'a writer must first become a voracious and expert reader before he or she can master a difficult art' [3] and in general, in the US the undergraduate programs place a stronger emphasis on the study of literature than the practice of craft. Despite this, Professor Lee Gutkind, reflecting on his experience with American students, told us in a recent interview: 'Wherever I travel, giving workshops and readings across the US and abroad, I am always amazed to discover how unfamiliar creative writing students are with creative writers.' [4]

A recent extensive study of the reading skills of over 2,000 students entering a United Kingdom Open University year showed that in an open entry undergraduate program, difficulty was experienced by a significant proportion of students in reading academic texts, and that this impacted negatively on student success. [5]

Characteristics of the group surveyed, the survey and the response

Of the 64 respondents to the survey, 50 were undergraduate students in the B.A. degree in Creative Writing from 1st, 2nd and 3rd year, 14 were postgraduate students undertaking Masters, Doctoral and Graduate Certificate study. There were four non-English speaking background International students. There were 45 females and 19 males, ranging in age from 17 to 60. The stated numbers of years at university ranged from 1 to 28, with most (80%) of undergraduates in their 1st, 2nd or 3rd years of university study.

Age in Years UG
17-39 yrs
Age in Years

22-66 yrs

Year of Course UG PG Total yrs at uni (incl.this) UG
1-6 yrs
4-28 yrs
17-18 17 01 21 11 01 13
19-20 15 02 20 03 02 19
21-25 08 22-28 07 03 09 03 08
26-29 02 04 05 3
30-39 08 32-38 03 05 03 4
41-44 02 06 02 2
55-60 02 08 1
10+ 4

[a blank indicates a 0 response]

The sample represents more than 50% of our 116 students [6] (55%). Though obviously no such study of 64 students can provide statistically meaningful answers to questions about Australian creative writing students in general, it will provide an interesting set of statistics to compare with, and feed into, other studies, while offering a snapshot of these students and their reading at this moment.

The high response rate reflected, we believe, students' commitment to their course, and we feel confident the large majority of students responded truthfully and conscientiously to the survey. Distributing the surveys also led to a number of individual discussions with students and some of the information gathered in these informal 'interviews' has been included below as indicated.

The survey was based around trying to find out students' involvement with the public literary culture, and their attitudes to reading and reading habits. The questions were asked in a format able to be readily analysed, with a balance of quantitative and qualitative items.

Why did you enrol in Creative Writing?

Our Creative Writing majors are all high achieving tertiary entrance students who could have chosen a vocational course from, for example, law or the health professions. Why, then, did they choose writing? The survey elicited the unequivocal response that most students (78%) enrolled in the course because they wanted to be writers. Why then aren't they 'readers'?

Responses to this question were short answer in type, which means they were not limited or guided by a set possibilities that we predicted. Half of the undergraduates mentioned that they enrolled in Creative Writing because they enjoyed writing, but only 6% (3 of the 50 undergrads) mentioned reading at all.
We do not believe any of our students to be functionally illiterate (due to the high entry scores required and the nature of the course). Anecdotal evidence suggests that only a handful have functional reading difficulties.

Almost 20% of undergraduates thought they were good writers, though no postgraduates stated this - a common pattern that may indicate different levels of maturity and awareness. Few undergraduates intended the course to improve their writing.

Why did you enrol in Creative Writing? UG UG% PG PG%
I want to be a writer 39 78 05 31
I enjoy writing* 25 50 04 25
I am a good writer 09 18
I want to improve my writing 07 14 6 37.5
I need incentive / motivation / discipline 05 10 04 25
I like reading 02 04
I love reading and studying literature 01 02
Other career preparation - publishing, film 02 04
Meet other like minded people 01 02 04 25
Return to uni / contrast to work 04 25

*students repeatedly used the phrase 'writing is my passion'

[These, as some other of the questions, elicit total responses in excess of 100% as students could give more than one answer]

When are students reading?

Only 40% of undergraduate students read 'for pleasure' more than once a week, with 20% only reading 'for pleasure' once a fortnight or less. However, 93% of postgraduate students read for pleasure 2-3 times a week or more.

I READ Every day or almost every day 2-3 times a
Once a
Once a
Less than
once a
Only very
or never
UG PG tot UG PG tot UG PG tot UG PG tot UG PG tot UG PG tot
for pleasure 12 07 19 08 6 14 18 01 19 06 00 06 04 00 04 00 00 00
to study 21 06 27 17 06 23 08 00 08 01 01 02 01 00 01 02 00 02
for work (not study) 08 10 18 06 02 08 06 01 07 02 00 02 02 01 03 26 00 26

With only 40% of undergraduate students are reading for study purposes more than once a week, the other interesting figure here is that 86% of postgraduates read in relation to their work 2-3 times a week or more. We can only speculate whether the disparities between younger and older students were a result of developmental difference alone, or whether they also reflected different secondary school curricula. Present Queensland secondary school English courses tend to emphasise 'expression' and creativity over reading, textual analysis and comprehension. This school privileging of 'expression' could well be problematic for those of us educating tertiary students in both reading and in rigorous self-editing of creative work.

What are students reading?

I READ Every day or
almost every
2-3 times a
Once a
Once a
Less than
once a
Only very
or never
books 18 07 16 05 10 00 00 00 01 00 05 00
magazines 07 06 16 03 12 02 03 01 06 01 04 00
newspapers 11 08 14 05 13 01 02 00 02 00 01 00
on the internet 15 03 11 05 09 02 05 01 03 00 02 00
textbooks/unit books 09 04 18 02 07 04 01 00 03 01 01 01

What are students currently reading?

The range of what students are reading is highly concentrated around fiction, novels and short stories, with a significant proportion of poetry, though with less than half reading poetry 'for pleasure'.

What are you reading at the moment?
Novel 41 17 58 91
Short Stories 16 09 25 39
Poetry 12 04 16 25
Bio/Autobiography 11 02 13 20
Other Nonfiction* 06 07 13 20
Magazines 05 01 06 09
Self Help/Spiritual 02 01 03 04
Children's/Adolescent 01 01 02 03
History 02 00 02 03
Plays 01 00 01 1.5
How to Write Books 00 01 01 1.5

* includes reviews, essays, travel, popular science

What do you most often read
Novel 23 04 27 42
Mazagine 08 02 10 16
Bio/Autobiography 11 04 15 24
Short Stories 05 01 06 09
Nonfiction* 02 04 06 09
Scripts 02 00 02 03
Saturday Paper/newspapers 01 01 02 03
Plays 01 00 01 1.5
Poetry 01 00 01 1.5
Chrildren's/Adolescent 01 00 01 1.5
Music Lyrics 01 00 01 1.5

* includes history, travel, popular science

Attitudes to reading

Questioned in various ways throughout the survey about their personal attitude to reading, student responses were overwhelmingly positive. For instance, when asked a series of questions about how they valued reading and their books, 75% of respondents indicated it was true that 'I love books' and 77% that 'I love reading'. It seems that in terms of self-perception/construction, there is no lack of valuing reading or their books, although they will share them with friends

It is true to say that true
I love books 48 75
I love reading 49 77
I can never throw away a book 38 58
I prefer not to lend my books 21 33

Asked under what circumstances they would read more, there was an overwhelming response that there was not enough time to read. There were a number of highly insightful responses about negotiating the time spent studying with living, and five students commenting that they used to read more when they were younger and had less pressing social lives and more time alone. Some students expressed feelings of guilt about their lack of reading and that they 'should read more' - interestingly though, these were some of the same students for whom the hours spent watching television were the highest. Many expressed the desire to read more, and that reading was 'wonderful' and 'important'. But somehow this is not being translated into reading.

Another part of the survey asked students about other leisure activities. On the whole students went to cafes, restaurants, hotels, live music venues and movies once a week or more, with other cultural activities (visiting museums, art galleries, live theatre, opera, ballet irregularly - less than once a fortnight). Visiting friends was on average at least once a week, and in many cases more than 2-3 times a week. The majority of students also undertake part-time and/or casual work, and from anecdotal evidence we know that many of our students work 20 or more hours in these jobs.

Watching TV was an activity inadvertently left out of the first copies of the survey, but when added, almost all (38 out of the smaller group of 40 undergraduate students) responded that they watched TV daily or almost every day, with most (31) watching 2-5 hours per day. Only four of this sample (10%) watched less than 2 hours per day and three (7.5%) claimed to watch 8-10 hours most days!


Every day or
almost every

2-3 times a
Once a
Once a
Less than
once a
Only very
or never
the movies 00 00 02 02 19 03 06 05 12 02 09 04
the theatre/ballet/opera 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 01 13 02 32 11
live music 00 00 00 00 05 01 08 01 14 02 18 08
pubs/hotels 00 00 01 00 10 02 10 01 08 00 19 07
cafes/restaurants 01 00 06 01 16 05 14 03 05 00 06 03
museums 00 00 00 00 00 00 03 01 14 04 31 09
art galleries 00 00 00 00 00 00 04 01 16 04 24 09
friends' places 03 00 14 03 20 02 02 06 03 00 04 02
the beach/country 00 00 00 00 07 07 02 09 05 23 07  
shopping 00 00 10 01 15 04 11 04 05 02 05 03

Library Visits


Every day or
almost every

2-3 times a
Once a
Once a
Less than
once a
Only very
or never
QUT Library 10 00 13 00 11 01 07 05 01 03 02 04
State Library 00 00 00 00 00 00 05 00 10 02 28 12
Local Library 00 01 03 00 03 01 09 03 09 00 21 09

Attitudes to writers and writing

Although 93% of students responded that they admired authors, 89% that they would like to be one, and that writers (82%) and books (93%) are influential, 86% felt that authors should be paid more and 42% that authors cannot make a decent living. Interestingly for this study, fewer students responded positively to enjoying writing (84%) than enjoying reading (95%).

It is true to say that


/64 %
I admire authors 48 12 60 93
I would like to be a writer 46 11 57 89
Writers are respected members of society 38 09 47 73
Writers can influence society 47 12 59 92
Books are influential 48 12 60 93
Writers can change the world 32 08 40 62
Writers should be paid more 44 11 55 86
Authors cannot make a decent living 22 05 27 42

Title and author recognition

At a time when Oxford University is being accused of 'dumbing down' their English Literature courses by dropping the study of Anglo-Saxon and the compulsory study of Beowulf, it is interesting to attempt some gauging of what our students are, and have been, reading.

Lists of 111 book titles and 126 authors (some concocted for the purpose of validating honest responses to the survey) elicited a wide range of recognition among students. In general, the level of recognition for postgraduate students was (as could be expected) higher, but even among this group there were surprising omissions.

For undergraduate students only the following were recognised by 70% or more students. From highest to lowest percentages:

Bryce Courtney (46%), John Grisham (46), Nick Earls (44), Jeffrey Archer (43), David Malouf (39), Patricia Cornwell (39), Michael Crichton (38), Tom Clancy (38).

The Horse Whisperer (44%), The Power of One (43), Angela's Ashes (43), The Joy Luck Club (43), Snow Falling on Cedars (42), Picnic at Hanging Rock (42), Praise (42), The Firm (40), Zig-Zag Street (39), Circle of Friends (36), Hunt for Red October (36).

All these high-recognition titles are also films (and film titles), and some are what can be called 'film tie-ins', produced as books only after the film.

Less than 50% of undergraduate students recognised the following (and many other) what we believe to be high profile authors:

Patrick White (24%), Margaret Attwood (15), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (15), Sue Woolf (15), Gillian Mears (12), Drusilla Modjeska (12), Rosie Scott (11), AS Byatt (10), David Forster (9), Janet Frame (9), Christina Stead (8), Lily Brett (8), Robert Dessaix (7), Brian Castro (4), Amanda Lohrey (1).

Literary Culture

We also tried to ascertain readers' relationship to 'book culture' - how they acquired books, and their awareness of, and participation in, a 'literary community', as well as their communication with others about books and reading.

Have you ever attended a Writer's Festival? UG PG TOTAL How many times? UG PG
Yes 17 07 24 01 07 02
02 05 01
03 02 02
04 02 00
06 01 01
10+ 00 01
Are you a member of a writers' group? How often do they meet?
Yes 05 02 07 fortnightly 02 00
monthly 02 02
2-3 times a year 01 00
Are you a member of a reading group or a book club? How often do they meet?
Yes 07 01 08 fortnightly 05 01
monthly 02 00

Book buying habits and reading

I GO TO Every day or almost every day 2-3 times a week Once a week Once a fortnight Less than once a fortnight Only very occassionally or never
bookshops 01 00 06 02 13 04 14 05 06 02 09 01


No. of books purchased per year

0 01 01 02 03
1-5 20 00 20 31
6-10 06 02 08 12.5
11-25 15 05 20 31
40-50+ 08 06 14 22

77% of students responded that they like to own the books they read, while 79% of postgraduate students stated they buy 11 or more books a year, and 54% of undergraduate students buy 10 or less books a year. Undergraduate students overwhelmingly (92%) believe they would buy more books if they were less expensive, and they had more time to read. However, book prices have not risen suddenly nor steeply. While 22% of students have made purchases over the Internet, only 14% overall had purchased books in this way and only 6% of undergraduates. On the question of the GST, less than 50% of students understand that the GST will make books more expensive, and more than 50% of undergraduate students have 'no idea'.

I would buy more books if

they were cheaper 46 10 56 87.5
I had more time to read 46 10 56 87.5
I got to bookshops more often 17 03 20 31


I have purchased

Anything on the internet 09 05 14 22
Books on the internet 03 06 09 14


The GST will make book

cheaper 05 01 06 09
more expensive 18 12 30 47
no idea 27 01 28 44

Studying and reading

Although more students (46%) felt studying a book intensified the pleasure of reading (compared to the 20% who felt it destroyed this pleasure), 60% of undergraduate students confessed that they only read 'some' (not 'most' or 'hardly any') of the texts required in their units. 40% claimed to complete 'most' or 'all' of the reading. For postgraduates, however, this figure was quite different with 71% reading 'most' or 'all' of their set texts. Our School divides our reading lists into required and recommended reading, with the former designated the minimum reading necessary to successfully complete the unit.

Studying a book

destroys it for me 12 01 13
intensifies the pleasure of reading for me 26 04 30


I read

all the texts required in my uni units 07 02 09
most of the texts required in my uni units 13 08 21
some of the texts required in my uni units 21 02 23
hardly any of the texts required in my uni units 09 02 11

Family background, childhood and reading

Our students identify as coming from highly literate and reading backgrounds. 88% of students grew up in an environment with 'books everywhere' or 'lots of books'. Only 11% had 'some' or 'few' books and one person said they grew up with no books. Both parents generally read.

My mother reads

TOTAL / 64 My father reads TOTAL / 64
newspapers 50 newspapers 57
magazines 53 magazines 34
books 56 books 46

We also asked students what their three favourite subjects were at school. As might have been predicted, English was most popular at both high and primary school levels, but the other subject choices reveal the importance of art, music and drama (creativity), history and social studies (story-telling and narrative) and languages (expression). The primary school 'wonder of the world' subjects (sciences and geography) do not lose most of their popularity in the more formal structure of secondary school (especially as Biology becomes a favourite of many).

High Primary
English 48* 11 59 01 38** 12 50 01
History 23 04 27 02 04 03 07
Drama/Theatre 14 06 20 03 03 03
Art 10 05 15 04 13 07 20 02
Sciences*** 07 05 12 05 10 01 11 05
Languages 09 01 10 06 04 02 06
Music 05 03 08 06 04 10 06
Geography 04 01 05 01 01 02
Logic/Philosophy 02 02 04
Maths 02 01 03 04 02 06
Design 02 02
Sport/PE 02 02 15 01 16 03
Social Studies 02 02 11 03 14 04
Legal Studies 02 02
Film & TV 02 02
Economics 01 01
Religion 01 01

* High School English includes Literature
** Primary School English including Reading, Writing, Literature, Composition
*** Biology, Chemistry, Physics

Students, like children who are read to, professed a liking for reading their favourite stories repeatedly.

I have favourite

stories I read over and ove 38 07 45 70
books I read over and over 38 09 47 73

Internet and reading

I have access to a computer at home 49 11 60 93
I have access to the Internet at home 34 09 43 67
I read on the INTERNET for study 44 11 55 86
I read on the INTERNET for pleasure 30 10 40 62

Students overwhelmingly have access to computers, with over 93% of students having a computer at home, and all QUT students having free access to on-campus computers with a 'free' Internet account per semester. While the high number of students who use the Internet for study purposes is perhaps not surprising (a number of courses actually include this as an assessment component), the numbers who also read on the Internet for pleasure (62% overall) is higher than we expected: 60% of undergraduates and 71% of postgraduates.

Future Strategies

1. The strategy of introducing students to local writers and their work has had some impact - those surveyed showed most recognition of authors Earls, MacGahan, Wilkins, Armanno etc. We will continue to encourage students to attend the Brisbane Writer's Festival and will take each of the 2nd semester classes to the festival as part of their unit.

2. It seems difficult (given the number of students who admit to not reading the set reading) to 'legislate' more reading for students, but for the last two years we have included short answer exam questions that test simple knowledge of the books' plot/characters. For example, in 1998 we asked: 'What is the object that the narrator accidentally hits someone on the head with near the end of Zig-Zag Street'. Since the novel's cover displayed a shoe on a head, we thought most would get this one. But a high percentage answered 'a bread roll'. Interesting from a psycho-analytical perspective, but obviously a guess. In 1999, we apportioned marks for the right answer, and results improved dramatically. It seems making reading assessible is a necessary inducement.

3. Some discussion of time management could be possible, given most students said they would read more if they had more time, but then watch hours of TV daily.

4. We have been strategically buying what we think are 'student attractive' books for our library.

5. We have encouraged authors giving guest lectures to emphasise the books by other writers most influential/inspirational in their own writing and development as authors.

6. It is self-evident, as stated by Brian Cambourne in an important essay on literacy, that 'reading cannot be said to have taken place unless comprehension takes place' [7] We are asking students to record in their semester journals, brief reviews of novels etc they have read for pleasure during the semester.

7. We impress upon students that if they are going to find a publisher and a market for their own work, it can help to read the books that each publisher is choosing to invest money in.

Above all, we need to convince creative writing students that reading widely is one of the most valuable means they have to achieve success as a writer.



Brien, Donna Lee. 'A Virtual Interview with Lee Gutkind'. TEXT (April 2000) <http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/april00/> Return to article

Buckridge, Patrick, Pamela Murray & Jack Macleod. Reading Professional Identities: the Boomers and their Books. Brisbane: Griffith University Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, 1995. Return to article

Cambourne, Brian. 'Assessment in Reading: The Drunkard's Search'. In Len Unsworth (ed). Reading: An Australian Perspective. Melbourne: Nelson, 1985. Return to article

'Hallmarks of a Successful Undergraduate Program in Creative Writing'. Association of Writing Programs (USA). <http://awpwriter.org/hallundergrad.htm> Accessed 11 May 2000. Return to article

Macdonald-Ross, M. & B. Scott. 'A Postal Survey of OU Students' Reading Skills'. Open Learning 12, 2 (June 1997): 29-40. Return to article

Marsden, John. The Dead of the Night, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, Sydney [first published 1994]. Page 41. Return to article

These 116 students are made up of 38 in first year, 30 in second year, 20 in third, 20 Graduate Certificate, 6 MA and 2 PhD. Return to article


Assoc. Professor Philip Neilsen is Discipline Head of Creative Writing Production at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and director of Postgraduate Studies. Philip has published 13 books including poetry, short stories and young adult fiction, and has just co-authored a young adult novel with Gary Crew. He has recently undertaken funded research into the reading habits of school children with Professor Adrian Ashman (University of Queensland). He was also a researcher for a Griffith University small ARC project into the reading habits of adult professionals.

Donna Lee Brien is Lecturer in Creative Writing at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and currently completing a PhD (in Creative Writing) on fictionalised biography at QUT. Published on biography, history and art history, Donna is currently writing a fictionalised biography of Mary Dean, wife of the infamous poisoner George Dean. Her biography of Edith and John Power, Recollection, is to be published later this year. Donna was a researcher on a Melbourne-based project on high school students, multiculturalism, reading habits and literacy.


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Vol 5 No 1 April 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady