Health Literacy: It’s complicated.


Adult literacy has been at the heart of World Education’s work since it was established in 1951 in India and founded the Literacy House upon the urging of Mohandas Gandhi. Sixty-four years later, while gains have been made in many parts of the world, the need for literacy education remains great:  there are nearly 800 million adults and out-of-school youth in the world with limited or no literacy and numeracy.  In the U.S., adults’ basic skills are falling behind those of other developed nations.  For the first time, the skills of young adults are lower than those of their parents’ generation.  At the same time, people need even more different types of literacies to move ahead in their lives than in 1951. World Education’s approach to literacy education and how we define it has evolved and expanded commensurate with the skills adults need to navigate systems, pursue opportunities, and address problems successfully in their personal lives, work, and communities.

To commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, in this series of blog posts World Education/ U.S. staff share their views on what literacy means to us today and how we are helping to advance adult education in multiple ways.  Our list is not comprehensive: there are not enough days in a week to feature all the types of literacy youth and adults need in today’s world!  Please join the dialogue.


Health literacy is a personal issue.

The Affordable Care Act defines health literacy as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.  So, World Education works with educators to develop innovative, health-contextualized instructional strategies, such as Words2Learn mobile learning project.

Health literacy is a community issue.

Individuals in the U.S. with low levels of literacy pay a high price when it comes to their health.  The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC, 2013) surveyed over 165,000 working age adults, representing 724 million adults in 23 countries.  The analysis found that the correlation between skill level and health is stronger in the U.S. than in almost any other participating country.  U.S. adults with low literacy skills reported having poor or fair health more often than individuals with high literacy skills.  World Education’s Managing Stress to Improve Learning is an online, facilitated course that helps teachers help their learners connect to community social and health services.

Health literacy is a health system issue.

Have you purchased health insurance lately?  Signed a consent form?  Read about a new medication? If you’re lucky, you have family or friends who are healthcare providers, and they can help you interpret the healthcare-ese.  World Education, through its National College Transition Network and the Health Care Learning Network, foster college and career readiness for adult learners.  Many of these learners want to become healthcare providers and a resource for their community.

Health literacy:  It’s complicated, but we’re doing something about it.


Published by

Cynthia Zafft

Cynthia Zafft

Cynthia Zafft, (Ed.D.) is the Principal Investigator for the LINCS Region 1 Professional Development Center at World Education, Inc. She also serves as the national moderator for the LINCS Health Literacy and LINCS Postsecondary Completion Communities of Practice. Cynthia serves as the senior advisor for the National College Transition Network at World Education, Inc. Her expertise includes curriculum development, research and assessment, and network development.