What is “Health Literacy”?

AKA Article Summary #10

To define health literacy, it must first be determined how literacy is defined.  To do this, the authors of the article elected to complete a retrospective view of the definition’s origin in our country.  It is cited within the text, that as the definition and parameters of the of it evolved, United States society was changing along with it – the two were interactively intertwined.  To give a brief overview of the changes within the definition of, then termed “functional literacy”, below is a list of corresponding decades and required grade levels that were to be completed in order for an individual to be considered “literate” and able to compete in the job market.

  • Late 1800’s/Early 1900’s = Able to read and write
  • 1930’s = three or more years of schooling
  • 1940’s = 4th grade completed
  • 1950’s = 6th grade completed
  • 1960’s = 8th grade completed
  • 1970’s = High school diploma earned
  • Current day = Postsecondary training/Higher education

Based on this abbreviated glimpse at the timeline of literacy, it can be concluded that as our country has moved “…from an agricultural to an industrial economy and now an information-based economy” the definition of literacy has adapted.

In 1988 Congress requested that the Department of Education create a universal definition for the country.  So, three years later, such a definition was written into history.  Literacy was defined as, “an individual’s ability to read, write and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at a level of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.”  So, basically the US was still left with a whole lot of room for interpretation and subjectivity on the issue.

As we all know, and as the authors mention, eventually the country turned into mandated testing within the school systems, measuring intelligence based on very specific criteria and subjects.  This type of testing was parallel to the Adult Literacy Testing that the Department of Education commissioned in the late 1980’s and once again in 2003.  The 2003 assessment essentially took it back to our “roots”, focusing on reading and writing – one big literacy circle.

Once the article outlined the history of the broader concept of literacy, the authors then moved in for a closer analysis of health literacy.  Right off the bat they acknowledge the reality that, just as the broader concept had changed with society, this new term has seen its fair share of evolution. One revolutionary realization cited within the text is the fact that skill level cannot be associated purely with educational attainment.  Although the two correlate to one another in some ways, they do not necessarily have to dictate one another. This realization was considered when comparing literacy rate to health outcomes of individuals, and analyzing how these two factors correlate.

Eventually the term has moved to be understood in its own right, in its own meaning, without the correlation to literacy a part from health.  One widely accepted definition, cited in the article, came from a committee within AMA in 1999.  This statement placed the goals of health literacy at the center of the terms meaning, “the capacity to obtain, process, and understand”.  Then ensued the various debates over things like, is this term static or dynamic? Should it be based solely on individual literacy, or is this a broader term for public education? Ultimately, the question is – is it okay to accept more than one, single definition.  If so, what are potential ramifications?

I found this read to be both historically informative, and also highly engaging.  I felt involved with the discussion and found myself to be agreeing or disagreeing with certain definitions that have emerged.  I understand that without consensus and a single definition, research completed that relates to health literacy, could become convoluted.  That being said, I like the idea of the phrase being dynamic.  It makes sense to me that it might take on different meaning based on the context it is used in.



Berkman, N., Davis, T., & McCormack, L. (2010). Health literacy: what is it?. Journal Of Health Communication, 159-19 11p. doi:10.1080/10810730.2010.499985



One thought on “What is “Health Literacy”?

  1. This is one of my favorite family and patient info articles because of its historical focus on literacy .. understanding just plain ole literacy is SOOO important for health!!

    Good work!


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