Read for Your Life: Resources for Teaching Health Literacy to Adults

By Hilary Schenker
March 21, 2012
Aguilar Library

timsamoff on Flickr

A woman came into the Library's Center for Reading and Writing, where she was enrolled in a basic literacy class. Visibly shaken, she pulled a staff member aside and confided that she wasn’t sure if she would be able to continue in the class. She had felt some pain in her breast, and her doctor had recommended that she have a mammogram. Not having any idea what a mammogram was, she understood it to mean that she had cancer. The staff member showed her how to find information about mammograms in library books and online. After consulting these resources, she went to her next doctor's appointment knowing what to expect and what questions to ask.

Since 2003, the Surgeon General has emphasized the critical importance of basic health literacy. An adult with a chronic condition must take charge of her own health. To begin, this requires researching, reading, and understanding medical information and the complex vocabulary that comprises it. It requires reading other types of materials, such as nutrition labels and medicine bottles. A patient must be able to speak with doctors, ask pertinent questions, navigate hospital maps and signs, fill out complicated forms, and keep track of her own medical history. She may even need to read recipes and learn to cook in a new ways.

Health literacy skills in reading, writing, listening, speaking, and math are critical. Adults with limited literacy may become passive when interacting with doctors, lacking confidence, losing rights, and ultimately becoming incapacitated by poor health. So what specific skills are needed, and how can we address these needs in the adult literacy setting?

The following is a list of essential health literacy skills we can address in the adult literacy classroom:

  1. Reading and filling out forms.
  2. Speaking with doctors and asking questions.
  3. Reading medicine labels and instructions.
  4. Learning to research important medical information.
  5. Building the confidence necessary to demand medical rights and pursue services and help where needed.
  6. Organizational skills, such as record-keeping, list-making, and writing down questions in advance.

Books for adult literacy learners addressing health issues:

Faine, M (1993). Lan is Sick. This is a basic literacy story, with pictures, about a woman going to the doctor and picking up a prescription. The story promotes discussion on a range of health care issues.

Gould, L. (2000). Stress. This is a picture-based beginning literacy story about one woman dealing with stress.

Kita-Bradley, L. (2008). Fad Diets. This is a picture-based beginning literacy story about a man trying to lose weight.

Reiff, T. (1992). Handle With Care. This engaging fiction book tells the story of a nurse who has trouble reading and the difficulties she encounters working at a nursing home (59 pages).

New Readers Press Health Stories: The three Health Stories student books and workbooks (introductory, low beginning, and high beginning) from New Readers Press offer interesting stories to learn about common illnesses, medical procedures, and the U.S. health care system. Workbooks offer additional practice on vocabulary, listening, and reading comprehension.

What To Do series: A series from the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, written for readers between a third and fourth grade reading level. Texts are organized in a format of question and answer.

Mayer, G., & Kuklieris, A. (2002). What To Do When Your Child Gets Sick. Whittier, CA: Institute for Healthcare Advancement.

Mayer, G., & Kuklieris, A. (2000). What To Do When You’re Having a Baby. Whittier, CA: Institute for Healthcare Advancement.

Online teaching resources for health literacy:

MedlinePlus Interactive Tutorials
From the website: “MedlinePlus presents interactive health tutorials from the Patient Education Institute. Learn about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment for a variety of diseases and conditions. Also learn about surgeries, prevention and wellness. Each tutorial includes animated graphics, audio and easy-to-read language.”

Talking with your Doctor
This resource from MedlinePlus includes links to resources on how to talk with your doctor, including sample questions and videos.

ESL Flow: Lessons for Teaching the Human Body
This is a variety of worksheets and activities for health vocabulary and dialogue. Worksheets are available at different levels. A tab at the top of the page for “Food/Eating” leads to worksheets on nutrition topics.

The Virginia Adult Education Health Literacy Toolkit
From the toolkit: “This toolkit is a resource to help adult education instructors and administrators better understand the problem of health literacy as it affects their learners. It is designed to support creative approaches to help learners increase health literacy as they engage in sound, productive adult literacy instruction.” The toolkit also includes one-page picture based stories on health topics, such as taking the right doses of mediation, depression, stress, talking to doctors, and eating right. A cleaner copy of the picture stories is also available online.

We Are New York
A series of nine engaging half-hour television shows each with accompanying workbooks, produced by the Mayor's office of Adult Education and the City University of New York, Office of Academic Affairs. Five of the episodes deal with health themes: No Smoking, New Life Cafe (diabetes), Asthma: The Soap Opera, Stop Domestic Violence, and The Hospital.

English for your Health
The Queens Library offers some resources for adults who speak very little English to learn about health topics.