Why teach health literacy?

Even before the pandemic, health organisations were publishing articles to help readers identify fake health news. Dr Vaughan Cruickshank and Dr Rosie Nash of the University of Tasmania ask what this means for schools.

A person’s ability to recognise reputable, accurate health information is part of their health literacy.

It is also included in school curriculums: it is defined within the Australian Health and Physical Education curriculum (AC:HPE) as an “individual’s ability to gain access to, understand and use health information and services in ways that promote and maintain health and wellbeing”. (Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2020, p.8).

Health literacy is essential to making critical decisions in health-related situations. There is a positive relationship between health literacy, health behaviours and health outcomes, and low health literacy is associated with poorer health (Mõttus et al., 2014).

The World Health Organization has positioned health literacy as a key strategy to addressing health inequalities and numerous programs have been designed to develop health literacy worldwide (Nash et al., 2021).

Teach health literacy to all

The AC:HPE is one of few curriculums worldwide that explicitly focuses on fostering health literacy in students. Health literacy is one of the five ‘key ideas’ that underpinned development of this curriculum (ACARA, 2020).

While the inclusion of health literacy in the curriculum points to its importance in contributing to good health outcomes, research (for example, Bröder et al., 2017) indicates that teaching health literacy can be challengingfor teachers.

Numerous environmental and social factors that can influence students’ health attitudes and behaviours contribute to this challenge. The teenage years are often considered the best time to teach health education and develop health literacy; however, recent research (for example, Hill et al., 2020) indicates that it could be more beneficial for children to develop health literacy in primary school when they are at a more impressionable age.

Attitudes and behaviours formed during childhood can influence adult health behaviours (Nash et al, 2020) and primary school classroom teachers are well placed to teach health literacy because of their in-depth knowledge of their students’ lives, needs and abilities.

Pilot program

HealthLit4Kids (HL4K) is an education package designed at the University of Tasmania for use in schools to raise awareness of health and promote discussions about health among teachers, students, families and communities.

The program has been piloted in five Tasmanian primary schools to support classroom teachers to develop health literacy in their students and encourage schools to embrace it across their curriculum. These five schools are located in areas of socio-economic advantage and disadvantage within Tasmania (from deciles 2-8 on the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas scale, where one is the lowest).

As these schools capture some of the socio-economic variation among the community, they may be representative of other schools in similar contexts nationally and internationally.

The HL4K program is designed to encourage children to create health messages and experience health-orientated activities in ways that make sense to them. Students demonstrate their health literacy by creating health ‘artefacts’, such as mental health (egg) cartons of calm, food plates and posters that they exhibit in whole-of-school Health Expo at the end of the program. It becomes an age-appropriate catalyst for students to start health-related conversations with their teachers, parents and friends.

At the end of the first year of the program in each school, program creators interviewed parents and analysed the teachers’ written reflections. Despite the variation in the socio-economic status between different schools, there was a lot of overlap in the challenges and benefits identified in implementing the program.

There is a positive relationship between health literacy, health behaviours and health outcomes, and low health literacy is associated with poorer health.

Parents’ impressions

Parent comments about HL4K focused on the engagement and behaviour changes of themselves and their children. Parents positively reported their children’s engagement and motivation to participate in practical activities, artefact creation and events such as the school expo. Children talked with their parents about the artefacts they were creating, and parents viewed this as supporting learning as well as reinforcing pressure points such as reduced screen time that were being emphasised at home.

Parent engagement reflected time pressures as well as their own values and priorities in relation to health. Parents perceived an increase in their children’s ability to understand, communicate and act on health-related knowledge at home.

Parents also observed behavioural changes related to food and nutrition, mental health and physical activity. They also reported their children had corrected some of their health-related misunderstandings and informed them of new or updated health information. This new knowledge and resulting changes positively influenced the whole family (Nash et al., 2020).

Teachers’ reflections

Teachers’ written reflections pointed to the importance of a whole-of-school approach using shared, health-related language, developing their own health literacy and knowledge about teaching it, and student engagement.

Teachers confirmed a whole-of-school approach was important to developing greater awareness and knowledge of health and wellbeing within the school community, enhancing learning opportunities within and between classes and using common health-literacy language (for example, ‘sometimes’ and ‘always’ foods) in lessons and conversations.

Teachers also developed a greater awareness of gaps in their own health literacy and how to work on these, as well as how to integrate health literacy across the curriculum. Similar to parents, teacher reflections revealed that students appreciated the importance of improving their health literacy, and how their engagement and excitement had a positive influence on the program (Nash et al., 2021).

Lifelong benefits

Insights from teachers and parents contribute to strategies to positively influence the health literacy of students and the wider community.

Parental engagement can be challenging for schools; however, parents in this study reported they were more likely to engage in programs that interested their children.

Along with regular informative communication (school newsletter, principal/teacher emails etc) and invitations to contribute to school plans and events, these strategies provide opportunities for the impact of a health literacy program to be sustained outside of the classroom. And it can positively influence the lifelong health of the wider population.


HealthLit4Kids (HL4K) https://www.utas.edu.au/hl4k/home

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA; 2020). Australian curriculum: Health and physical education. https://australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/health-and-physical-education/

Bröder, J., Okan, O., Bauer, U., et al. (2017). Health literacy in childhood and youth: A systematic review of definitions and models. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 361.

Flaxman, G. (2019). Fake health news stories: How to spot them. https://www.hcf.com.au/health-agenda/health-care/research-and-insights/fake-health-news-stories.

Hill, K., Bailey, J., Steeger, C., et al. (2020). Outcomes of childhood preventive intervention across 2 generations: A nonrandomized controlled trial. JAMA Pediatrics, 174(8), 764-771.

Mõttus, R., Johnson, W., Murray, C., et al. (2014) Towards understanding the links between health literacy and physical health. Health Psychology, 33(2), 164–173.

Nash, R., Cruickshank, V., Flittner, A., Mainsbridge, C., Pill, S., & Elmer, S. (2020). How did parents view the impact of the curriculum based HealthLit4Kids program beyond the classroom? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(4), 1449.

Nash, R., Cruickshank, V., Pill, S., MacDonald, A., Coleman, C., & Elmer, S. (2021). HealthLit4Kids: Dilemmas associated with student health literacy development in the primary school setting. Health Education Journal, 80(2), 173-186.

Dr Vaughan Cruickshank, Program Director, Health and Physical Education; Mathematics and Science, School of Education, University of Tasmania.

Dr Rosie Nash, Chief Investigator and Co-Founder of HealthLit4Kids and Lecturer in Public Health, School of Medicine, University of Tasmania.