Time to Get Health Literacy off Life Support

August 18, 2020

It’s hard to compete with an octopus – no, not at arm wrestling – but at capturing and sustaining a young reader’s attention. Three hearts – in one body!  Blue blood — the real, not fake princess, stuff!  But just as COVID-19 changed how we teach, it’s time to change what we teach. As much as I love books about animals, we need to turn inward and learn more about us humans. Unlike cars, people don’t come with owner’s manuals, and the pandemic blew open the hood to expose a U.S. population that is health illiterate. 

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that only 12 percent of U.S. adults have a high level of health literacy. Most people can’t understand or process basic health information to help them make good decisions.  This finding includes both oral and written language, so whether it’s talking with health professionals, reading and understanding instructions, consent forms, medical doses or deductible co-pays, as a nation we get a big fat “F”. Even people with high levels of education don’t do so well. Look at it this way – if health literacy were a Jeopardy! category, it would be the last one left on the board and to boot, the players wouldn’t even buzz in. 

So how can schools rev up health literacy?

  • Determine what basic health information and practices everyone should know and build a solid, developmentally appropriate K-12 curriculum. This could include knowing the ranges of a normal temperature, how to measure medicine, and explain how bacteria and virus differ. Find ways to mesh health with language arts and math standards in a transdisciplinary manner. Demand better and more engaging health literacy materials from publishers, and vet existing realistic fiction to find those great read hidden gems. Yes, we can learn lots of factual information in fictional pieces. 
  • Teach how to effectively advocate for one’s health. This entails broadening vocabulary – for example, knowing descriptive words such as acute, chronic and persistent when explaining symptoms. Statistically, only half of patients take their medicine. When teaching persuasive writing, students could argue if what a health practitioner is recommending is realistic with a person’s lifestyle and budget or not.   With telemedicine mushrooming since the onset of COVID-19, patients have to take ownership of keeping track of their data and checking their symptoms. They need how to voice concerns effectively.   
  • Use simpler language – not contradict, but build upon the previous point – say “no” to jargon and ambiguity. “Take two pills twice a day,” opens itself to various interpretations, compared to “take two pills in the morning and two pills in the evening.” Although healthcare is attempting to transition to clearer language, it’s not happening fast enough. We as educators can get it unstuck, by teaching our students good language habits and stressing the importance of “knowing your audience” when communicating.
  • Don’t just read – interpret. What does this really mean? Seeing the word “positive” on a test result may not be something to celebrate. Analytical skills allow people to understand the risks of side effects or weigh treatment options. No one is a native speaker of academic language – it has to be taught, and fluency doesn’t happen overnight. 
  • Know where to find reliable information. Health literacy can depend on digital literacy. Just as they learn to read vertically, students need to learn to read laterally in order to evaluate and fact-check information and websites they find online. Students also need to use search engines wisely. Print, digital, and TV media all receive press releases, and in many instances, they disseminate this information word-for-word, even if it came from biased sources.

Pandemics reshape a society. It may seem hard to believe, but before the 1918 pandemic, spitting was commonplace and covering a cough was unheard of (first came the hand – we transitioned to coughing into your elbow way later.) How will we look back at this pandemic? Will we crawl out of our health illiteracy, or will it all still be murky, like octopus’s ink?

Carol Hofer, NBCT

Carol Pierobon Hofer (NBCT - English as a New Language, Early and Middle Childhood) teaches ENL at Fox Hill Elementary in Indianapolis. Carol, who came to the United States at age 18, helps her school community as interpreter, translator and family liaison. In her 28-year career she’s taught all age groups from preschoolers to senior citizens, but don’t ask her to choose a favorite. She is a member of the National Board Network of Accomplished Minoritized Educators (NAME) and mentors NBCT candidates. Carol is also a 2020-22 WIDA Fellow, chosen for her exemplary service to bilingual and multilingual students, as well as a workshop leader and site visitor for the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. A Fulbright Educator Exchange in Uruguay 11 years ago built lasting ties, making Carol the proud madrina (godmother) of a rural school where she remotely and joyously connects with students learning English. A world traveler and polyglot, Carol says she feels at home in any part of our planet because, as Maya Angelou’s poem Human Family says, “We are more alike my friends, than we are unlike.”