What Does Health Literacy Look Like in the Real World?

By Shonna Snyder posted 10-02-2017 18:59


As health educators, we have the incredible opportunity to lead the charge for our students; to empower them to make the right decisions for their health and well-being. During Health Literacy Month, make it a point to help students see healthy literacy as an asset to living their best life.

Let’s first start by understanding what is health literacy.  SHAPE America has recently expanded its definition of health literacy to the “ability to access, understand, appraise, apply and advocate for health information and services in order to maintain or enhance one’s own health and the health of others.”

The idea is that our students must first know where to get the information and, after obtaining it, understand it.  Then, they must be able to decipher whether the information is accurate and credible. I’ve broken down these critically important steps below and share some examples of how to teach these life-changing skills.

Step One: Access

Teens_Computer_Resized.pngBrainstorming is one of my favorite active learning strategies because it engages students in the health education skill and content. Start by asking the class what the last health product (vitamins, personal hygiene products, etc.) was that they purchased. Create a master list on the board. Then ask them where they got the product (Brainstorm again). Then ask why that place (where they purchased the product) is a credible place to get it.

Some answers might be “Because my doctor gave it to me and they are the expert,” “Because this place has a lot of choices and you can choose the best one,” or maybe you will hear “Because this is the only place that carries this product in my town.” All of these answers are emphasizing that in order to be health literate one must be able to access health information, products and services.This process will also increase a student’s understanding and their ability to comprehend, appreciate and recognize healthy choices.

Step 2: Appraise/Understand

Compare and contrast. Choose three different products of the same kind for students to learn more about. Two should be legitimate and one might be less legitimate or not have the necessary information to determine if it’s reputable.  Buy Dehydrated Water is a mock company website to use for this activity. The made-up company is trying to discourage consumers from drinking bottled water or tap water and instead buy “dehydrated water.”  Ask students to compare and contrast the three different sets of products and available information.

Potential Class Questions

  • What similarities or differences do you notice?
  • Are there observable dates?
  • Are there reputable authors behind the information?
  • Are there phone numbers or other contact information you could use if you have a question?

Appraisal questions will help students evaluate and judge whether the product, information or service is worth putting on their list of choices.

Step 3: Apply

Applying health literacy to real life could one day actually change the life of a student.  It could even save a life.  As a teacher, we always want to promote the idea of application to our students.  When a student visits the doctor, it is important that they’re able to effectively communicate their issue or concerns and be able to discuss the visit or check-up so that they understand any results and treatments and have all of their questions answered.

Have students role play the part of the health professional and the injured or sick patient. Students can practice applying health literacy by describing their “issue” and asking the “doctor” questions.  This activity utilizes the skill of communication, and other skills such as being able to analyze influences might also come into play.

Step 4: Advocate

A health literate student can positively persuade others to live a healthy lifestyle.  One way to practice the skill of advocating to enhance their own health and that of others is to encourage students to start a campaign.  The campaign can be about anything health related.  Once a topic is chosen, students begin trying to persuade and educate others. 


If recycling is a popular topic at your school, let your health education students begin a campaign to increase recycling behaviors. They can create PSAs for the school TV channel, make posters to place around the school to promote recycling, or have a class challenge to meet a particular recycling goal after the goal setting skill has been introduced.

To find more activities and lesson ideas, including a new Youth Empowerment Series to help students acquire the skills to be health literate individuals, check out SHAPE America’s dedicated Health Literacy Month website. Feel free to connect with me here on Exchange and on social media; @slsshonna on Twitter and snyderhealthed on Facebook.




10-16-2017 13:07

​I am currently a student at West Chester University  studying Health and Physical Education and I could not agree with this post anymore. I think that it is very important that health educators know they are teaching their students healthy habits and growing up and understanding how to read a nutrition label is very important for example. It is important that they carry these habits into their everyday lives and for their future to understand what they are consuming and understand the health/nutrition vocabulary.

10-05-2017 09:29

Many thanks for posting your thoughts on the importance of health literacy and taking the lead to speak out via Exchange!