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Health Literacy Lessons from Adult Literacy Research

Adults who drop out of school continue to increase reading and other literacy skills up to age 30,
John Comings, EdD, former director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and
Literacy reported at the 2011 Health Literacy Annual Research Conference. Improvement appears
to be related to new literacy demands in early adulthood, such as a new job. And skills developed
to meet a specific demand increase general skills.  

Lessons for health literacy  This research shows that adults can and do build new literacy skills
in order to function in new contexts. It demonstrates that literacy is not something you have or
you don’t. Rather, literacy and health literacy develop with need, opportunity, experience and
support. Parenting can be considered a “new job” that presents new literacy demands, including
using health information and services to maintain personal and child health – parental health
literacy. Similarly, a chronic condition like obesity or diabetes can be framed as “new job” with
new literacy demands. Adult literacy research supports the health promotion approach to health
literacy as a personal asset that can be built through skills development.

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