Communicating – it’s the heart of literacy.

Communicating back-and-forth builds language in individuals and communities – and language is the foundation for becoming literate. For the majority of people this means spoken language, but not in all cases – for people who may not hear or produce speech can still develop language in other modes.

Language is the system of shared symbols which groups of people and communities use to represent the outer world in which they live, the inner world of thoughts, emotions and abstract concepts, and to communicate with each other about these worlds.

In the case of spoken language, the ‘symbols’ are the patterns of speech sounds which form the words themselves. Written words are visual symbols made-up of letters. The word ‘literate’ first came into English meaning ‘lettered’, or, ‘one who knows letters’. In English the arrangement of the letters within a word is based primarily upon the patterns of speech sounds (phonemes) within the spoken word. To process written letters back into speech, skill in processing the phonemes is also needed.

Communicating, interacting and using spoken language positively are the powerful processes which attune human beings to the spoken-word-symbols by which to keep building language for communication throughout life. Infancy and childhood are especially critical periods for this development. In typical development, these interactions also attune people to the phonemes within those spoken words. Discernment of the phonemes allows links to be made between the phonemes and the letters on the page. These links are essential for making the transition from spoken to written language: they are what permit people to become ‘lettered’ – or literate. And with this skill they can then go on using the letter-code of written words to help the continual expansion of their language and vocabulary. Regarding the mastery of literacy, communicating is at the heart.

But many amongst us – in Tasmania and the nation – are unable to read and write well enough to manage the demands of daily life when those demands are in written form. The fact of this diminishes our collective dignity, agency, wellbeing, economic opportunity and safety. Yet with very few exceptions, everyone can learn to read and write if given effective, tailored direct-instruction within trusted relationships that both inspire and challenge.

There is much reason to hold great hope. And to pursue it.

Further, communication has yet another principal place in the journey to becoming a fully literate state (and nation): it is at the heart of collaboration. Collaboration involves listening to all stakeholders, giving attention to robust data from clinical research and human story, and remaining open and curious without judgment. These are skills. They can be developed. They are underpinned by relational trust. Which can also be developed.

After all, it is the voice of every instrument in the orchestra which creates the beauty that leads to the ovation of success.

Positive communication requires attention and intention. This is made clear by its contrast. During discussion of ‘heated’ and ‘divisive’ topics it is common to hear exclamations of ‘why can’t we be grownups and have a mature conversation about this?’. There’s an easy answer. Many of us do not have the communication awareness and skills to have this mature conversation.

Human beings are a-bristle with subconscious trigger-points which, if activated, disrupt generous attention to others and communication with them. Even the highly literate struggle with these emotion-based responses.

Understanding and being willing to repair our own communication trigger-points (this is self-knowledge), as well as to authentically and empathically understand the ruptures of others, are skills that are at the heart of achieving Tasmania’s literacy goals. We need these skills to become commonplace across our many contexts – for they support our richest collaboration.

Progressing intransigent problems requires many voices and orchestration of the array of insights which they hold. Skills of careful listening, not judging, staying calm, and being curious and open, create the conditions in which individuals presenting their views can be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ in the honour of their identities and human worth. Dialogue is called for. Not adversarial knee-jerk responses.

In his book, On Dialogue, David Bohm writes: “In a dialogue… nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins.”

Gaining and widely sharing these communication skills holds potential to yield vast improvements to literacy rates in our state: these skills are at the heart of Tasmania’s literacy solutions.

Communicating: The Heart of Literacy is a Tasmanian initiative which has invited many views upon the subjects of literacy, communication and collaboration. These views will be presented in Talking Point and on over the next few weeks ahead of a May symposium on these topics at Government House.

Rosie Martin is a Hobart-based facilitator, speech pathologist and criminologist. Here she writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative. See more at

This article was first published in The Mercury on 5th April 2018.