Three-year old Ellie is sitting on my capacious Grand-dad lap listening to stories and chatting about the birds we can see from our verandah sofa. I ask her to pass me my glass and she says: “No, Grandad, I’ve got busy hands!” A fresh expression!

Watching children acquire and play with language is fascinating. So, too, is the observation of how language is power. Once a child has mastered the ability to communicate, then can remember to say please and thank you, her world is her oyster and Grandad is putty in her hands. The language she learns also provides the framework for her view of the world. She loses her ball at a Bass Strait beach and in short time she can grasp the idea that the ball will float to Melbourne and be brought back at Christmas by another doting family member.

This framework sets the boundaries for children but also for the adults that they become. David Walsh of MONA says that his reading of books and visits to museums opened the eyes and broadened the horizons of a boy from Glenorchy. Not all kids have that curiosity and so their world view can be more limited. A child’s emotional framework is also set through early experience and language. A child who is talked to and has things explained, feels valued. A child who is told that she is loved feels safe, with a secure place in the family and, by extension, the wider community.

These language boundaries and conventions continue to develop through the experiences at school where the environment – and the all-important teachers – create the frameworks for turn-taking, politeness and interactions with other kids. Those other kids set up the early experience of how one can use language to persuade. They also teach that one can suffer for saying the wrong thing, speaking in a “funny” accent or in a way that is not the norm for the group.

All this means that by the time we are old enough to vote we have our world pretty much framed through literacy and lived experience. Which is amazing but also scary as that frame is both a scaffold and also a prison. Why? Well the “scaffold” is obvious but the “prison” comes from the boundaries and constraints now set in place.

In my experience as a consultant in organisational and community change I have spent much of my life helping individuals and organisations to break out of these boundaries and constraints. And the tool? Language, of course!

Here are some examples.

Picture a group of middle managers (mainly men) sitting in the rainforest on the edge of Lake Dove under Cradle Mountain. It is quiet, serene and surreally beautiful. The group are also quiet and are concentrating on a task: to write a haiku that captures their experience in this beautiful place. Their efforts yield gold as the subject (nature) and the demands of a haiku – three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count – forces the managers to think and express themselves in a way that is fresh and unbounded. The ensuing discussion is rich, novel – and enjoyable. We each learn something about ourselves and about the people in our group.

Fast forward to a scene in a community centre where 60 people, drawn from across the spectrum of the disadvantaged community they live in or offer services to, are being lead through a process called Future Search. Having spent a day mind-mapping the influences on the community on a huge wall map, and teasing out the ‘Prouds’ and ‘Sorries’ of the community, they are about to listen to the four teams present.

And what presentations they are.

Instead of a Powerpoint with lists of dot points, each team has been set the task of creatively presenting a speech that they will make in 30 years talking about – and acting out in costumes they have designed from craft materials – what they have achieved in transforming this community. By looking backwards from the future, they are able to see differently and to be unbounded by their constraints on what is possible! The result: nine different projects ranging from a new walkway to the CBD, a community garden, better public transport, a social heart, better police services and initiatives to address anti-social behaviour. Oh, and they won a national planning award for their efforts.

So, literacy is much more than learning to read and write. Literacy is using language to understand and control the world. Literacy is being able to think outside the boundaries of our minds. Literacy changes lives.

Owen Tilbury is Director of the Tasmanian Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival, a Community Led Impact Partnerships (CLIP) facilitator, Director of the Tasmanian Innovation Awards and a consultant and speaker. Here Owen writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative, a public dialogue about communication, literacy, enablement, collaboration and relational trust – find more at