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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Maryland Researchers Study How Children Develop Health Literacy

A new study by University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers explored how children develop health literacy. It found that personal experiences influence concepts of health, and that children apply knowledge based on the health information they learn at school and at home.


The team of researchers included Ms. Krishna Bhagat, a doctoral student, Dr. Donna Howard, associate professor, and Dr. Linda Aldoory, affiliate associate professor, all in the School of Public Health’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health.

The goal of the study was to examine how children acquire health knowledge, including how they extract health information from food packaging and make health decisions based on what they learn from their parents and schoolteachers. The knowledge gained from this study will inform health literacy theory and broaden children’s health education.

“Analyzing children’s conceptualizations of health, body and health literacy will significantly add understanding to how problematic health attitudes and behaviors may take root,” the study reads.  “The knowledge gained from such an assessment can be applied toward communication contexts that aim to promote children’s health literacy and their well-being.”

The study is based on qualitative data gathered from in-depth interviews with children between the ages of eight and 11 years. The children were asked such questions as “What does healthy mean to you?” and “Can you describe a healthy body to me?” Children were also shown a nutritional label from food packaging to and asked to describe what they understood.

The researchers distinguished three types of health literacy in their results: functional, communicative and critical. Functional health literacy refers to how individuals acquire information from reading. Communicative health literacy is information extracted from social situations and communication with others. Critical health literacy is the children’s ability to analyze and apply health information in their own lives.

For functional health literacy, researchers found that the children’s own interpretation of the nutrition labels aligned with their perceptions of health. For communicative health literacy, the children tended to relate learned health information to their own conceptualization of health. In terms of critical health literacy, the study showed that children analyzed and tested health information based on their own experiences. Also, children who actively participated in their health decisions had a more sophisticated conceptualization of health.

“It was fascinating to hear children share their own voices through dialogue and drawings in this project,” Bhagat said. “Children are curious, open-minded, independent, yet impressionable thinkers. It is so important that we facilitate development of positive, holistic, and efficacious conceptualizations of health at an early age and specifically address the relevant aspects of health literacy which could shape these understandings.”

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