According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 66 million Americans read at an elementary level.
Reading is a fundamental skill that impacts every facet of life, including the ability to read and understand COVID-19 materials and public health guidelines.
Iris Feinberg, research assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and associate director of the College of Education & Human Development’s Adult Literacy Research Center, published an article in Perspectives in Adult Education on building a culture of health literacy in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Adults who read at elementary levels (low literacy) are also likely to have low health literacy, which are the skills that allow one to access, understand and use health information,” she wrote. “If we allow adults with low literacy to fail at COVID-19 safeguards and inadvertently share this illness broadly throughout communities, we will all fail.”
Her article highlights how social determinants of health – such as education, socioeconomic status, health care access and community development – influence a person's well-being, particularly for lower-resourced neighborhoods and refugee, immigrant and migrant communities.
Feinberg outlines how public health staff, elected officials and community leaders can ensure all residents understand important health information. Adults with lower literacy levels tend to rely more on radio and TV announcements than printed materials, so sharing public service announcements through those media outlets can help spread the word. For printed materials, it’s important to use simple, easy-to-read language and visuals and include concrete action steps to make health guidelines more straightforward.
Feinberg’s article offers examples of health literacy efforts that successfully reached struggling adult readers, and details the inequities that occur when societies don’t ensure the most vulnerable populations understand public health information.
“Adults with low literacy skills are left out of the critical communication chain that describes those health protections, which is more than simply unfortunate. It is part of a structured social injustice that we can address by improving the health and well-being of vulnerable populations,” she wrote. “Dealing with COVID-19 requires equitable and universal dissemination of culturally- and linguistically-appropriate health information. There has never been a more important time to build a culture of health literacy for all Americans.”
About the Researcher
Department of Learning Sciences
Iris Feinberg is a research assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and associate director of the College of Education & Human Development’s Adult Literacy Research Center. Her primary area of interest is health literacy; current studies include working with health professions students, understanding barriers to care for refugees, decoding scientific literacy that affects health outcomes and helping organizations develop a culture of health literacy. Feinberg’s interests also include adult literacy in Georgia, in particular as it relates to adults who attend programs to receive basic education instruction and those who attend programs to get their high school equivalency degree. She is the co-principal investigator on a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences in partnership with the Office of Adult Education at the Technical College System of Georgia. Feinberg is a founding member of the Georgia Alliance for Health Literacy.
Feinberg, I. (2021). “Building a Culture of Health Literacy During COVID-19.” New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 33: 60-64. https://doi.org/10.1002/nha3.20316