Looking, listening and speaking are often neglected literacy skills. While educationists, to some extent recognise and rue literacy loss among students, many do not place a high priority on these three literacy elements.

For the past several years and especially since NAPLAN became a major item on the annual education agenda, we have been told of the need for students to reinvent themselves in literacy terms. The focus is on reading and writing. How sad it is that the prime communications skills of looking, listening and speaking are not sufficiently a part of this recognition.

Learning by looking

As children grow into life ‘looking’ is an initial literacy skill. First and foremost, children as babies and young toddlers learn by looking. From that grows an awareness based on listening to parents and siblings. Speech is what happens as very young children begin to verbally copy and respond to circumstances by talking.

Communication skills evolve slowly. Literacy competence does not happen overnight but builds over the years. It never stops developing.
When children arrive at school learning too often focuses far too prematurely on reading and writing. While both reading and writing are important, the continued development of looking, listening and speaking is essential. Early learning leading toward formalised testing (remembering that NAPLAN testing first impacts in year three) with its prime focus on reading and writing makes it easy to overlook listening and speaking needs.

Key needs discounted.

Education at home and school should take prime account of the need for students to be taught the skills of listening and speaking. Sadly, this essential need is too often relegated and accorded only minor importance.

It is critically important that children be taught to listen. Without listening skills being carefully developed, students often fail to pause, think and respond on the basis of having thought through questions being asked. They tend to anticipate responses which can be incorrect because they have not listened with understanding. Another bad habit which develops can be children not hearing questions because they expect their teachers will repeat them a number of times before moving on to the next requirement. A common example is that of teachers repeating mental maths questions or spelling words over and over again. Parents at home and teachers in schools need to recognise how important it is that children learn to listen. For adults to model this as a skill to the younger generation, will help. ‘Do as I do’ is an ideal way of setting the example when it comes to the development of listening skills.

In the same way, it is important that adults model correct speech so children grow up learning by hearing and then copying correctly enunciated vocal patterns. There is nothing more important than young people learning by rote, when it comes to the basic elements of communication. The practice of correct speech and speaking is essential if we are to be clearly understood. It is also important that adults model elements of correct speech to young people, who observe and copy. We ought not overlook the need for speech to be careful and correct.

Eye contact

Eye contact is another neglected attribute. People tend to be very indirect when it comes to eye contact, often looking away from and avoiding their eyes engaging during conversation.

Failure to make eye contact can lead to hesitation and embarrassment between those listening and speaking to each other. That should not be the case. Confidence in communication, both listening and speaking, builds when those engaged in discourse look at each other. I believe the eyes to be the most powerful of all tools supporting conversation between people.


In our modern times, looking, listening and speaking often seem to be the lost arts of communication. They are very important observational, auditory and verbal elements of literacy. Revisitation and reinstatement of these essential skills needs to be part of the educational focus at home and school.


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