A Health Literacy Call to Action- From Research to Action

Summary Points

  • About early literacy
  • Defining health literacy
  • Importance of healthy literacy
  • Ways to improve early literacy with your children


Approximately 80 million Americans have limited health literacy.1 Health literacy affects people’s ability to share personal health history, engage in self-care, manage chronic conditions, understand numerical concepts (calculate dosages, etc.), and their ability to navigate the healthcare system.2 According to the CDC, health literacy can affect people’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the relationship between lifestyle factors like diet and exercise and different health outcomes. 2 Limited health literacy is also associated with poor health and not having insurance.2 People with low health literacy are more likely to have a chronic condition and less able to manage them.2 The population most likely to experience low health literacy are older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, people with less than high school education, people with low-income levels, non-English speakers, and people with compromised health status.3

The ability to read by the end of third grade is an important indicator of graduating high school. 4 Lower health literacy is associated with less education, there are studies that have found that if children are reading on their appropriate reading level by the end of third grade then in turn there would be an increase in health literacy rates for future generations.4 Bottom line is that early childhood literacy relates to low health literacy rates in adults. There are very few prevention programs that specifically address the third-grade reading level as a means of lowering the prevalence of health literacy.

Experiencing and engaging in language-rich interactions help children to not only develop communication skills but also patience, empathy, and literacy- all of which are critical to success in school and beyond.5 Additional positive effects of reading together include better recognition of sounds and letters, knowledge of a wider range of vocabulary, and an increase in listening skills. 5

Reading is one of the most difficult tasks that children will have to learn. Reading skills serves as the major foundational skill for all school-based learning, and without it, the chances for academic and occupational success are limited. Due to the importance and visibility, particularly during the primary grades, difficulty learning to read can crush the excitement and love for learning that many children have when they enter school. So why not pick up a book and help the children in your life read? Holding them close while reading can help children manage moments of their anxiety and create a more positive association with reading that sticks with them throughout their lives.5

There are several different ways to encourage early literacy:

  1. Try listening to music in the car and at home.
  2. Talk about experiences and have conversations, this will help them describe something they have done, seen, read, or heard about.
  3. Visit the library- in addition to books, libraries offer interactive family literacy programs.
  4. Don’t dumb down your language, this can help improve your child’s grasp of literacy.
  5. Ask questions and actively strive to extend the conversation topics.
  6. Read books at bedtime. Start with durable board books with faces and animals with fewer words and have more pictures. You can gradually progress to more complex picture books and ask questions that would help support comprehension (“I wonder what will happen next”).
  7. When storytelling, deviate from the story. Ask them questions and point out details in the pictures.
  8. Involve your children in activities where you use literacy, such as help with the reading your shopping list and pick out items at the grocery store.
  9. Expose your child to new experiences and words, it will help expand their vocabulary and pick up new skills.
  10. Help children make their own books. Write down their stories or special memories, they can draw their own artwork to illustrate the pictures in the book.

This is your call to action, help the children in your life. Help them succeed and make it farther. Health literacy is a key determinant of health, so let’s support our loved ones to be healthier from a younger age.

Read more about developmental milestones and family resources.


Ashley Yates
Program Associate




  1. Berkman, Nancy & Sheridan, Stacey & Donahue, Katrina & Halpern, David & Crotty, Karen. (2011). Low Health Literacy and Health Outcomes: An Updated Systematic Review. Annals of internal medicine. 155. 97-107. 10.1059/0003-4819-155-2-201107190-00005.
  2. Centers for Disease Control. (2019). Understand health literacy. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/Understanding.html
  3. Hickey, K. T., Masterson Creber, R. M., Reading, M., Sciacca, R. R., Riga, T. C., Frulla, A. P., & Casida, J. M. (2018). Low health literacy: Implications for managing cardiac patients in practice. The Nurse practitioner, 43(8), 49–55. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NPR.0000541468.54290.49
  4. Kern, M. L., & Friedman, H. S. (2008). Early educational milestones as predictors of lifelong academic achievement, midlife adjustment, and longevity. Journal of applied developmental psychology, 30(4), 419–430. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2008.12.025
  5. Reach Out and Read. Child development. Retrieved from https://www.reachoutandread.org/why-we-matter/child-development/

Search our website

Skip to content