How to develop health literacy in the classroom

How to develop health literacy in the classroom

Developing health literacy is building the knowledge, understanding and skills to research, apply and assess health information and services.

In this video

What is health literacy?

Karen: Health literacy is the way that we:

  • get and have health,
  • express our understandings of health, for example, being healthy or being unhealthy,
  • advocate for our own health and the health of others.

Health literacy has a lot to do with literacy itself. Health becomes the context for developing any number of sets of literacy skills - for example, literacy, media literacy, advertising literacy, medical literacy, mathematical literacy etc. Therefore, what we’re developing in young people is a set of skills associated with being or becoming someone we might describe as being health literate.

The challenge for teachers is to then bring these definitions to class as distinct activities.

Justen: Health literacy develops a range of knowledge, skills and understandings that help us evaluate our life circumstances and the situations in which we find ourselves. It will help us negotiate services, materials and information.

Health literacy is linked to general literacies – those literacies that support us in our everyday life.

Use case studies and vignettes to explore health literacy

Justen: It’s important to understand our learners. When using health literacy approaches we need to use topics that are relevant and meaningful to the people we’re working with. Case studies and working through vignettes are good approaches to unpacking health literacy.

Karen: Health literacy is also about the various dimensions of health. You can be health literate in terms of your physical, emotional and social health. These capabilities link nicely to taking a strengths based approach. A health literate young person will be a young person who:

  • has a diverse set of skills,
  • can make some complex decisions under pressure,
  • can work to their own strengths to do those things.

One of the things to consider when taking a health literacy approach is it requires us to think about what young people might need in the future. Therefore, it’s strongly linked to some of the issues or life events that are going on for them right now in order for them to be able to apply them contextually and to question them in terms of developing their health and literacy skills in order to be able to apply them into the future.

Peer pressure at a house party
It's important to link discussions about health to the current issues young people are going through.

The key to health literacy is to make it fun and engaging for learners

Karen: One of our challenges is going to be taking ourselves out of the dryness of the notions of what health, health literacy and health promotion are, and to bring to young people a diverse set of activities, ideas, case studies, vignettes and opportunities to explore the world of health literacy in a really engaging way. That is most certainly one of the challenges of bringing health literacy to classrooms in Australia.

Justen: We can extend notions of health literacy beyond just a focus on drugs and alcohol and other mental health issues. We can push it into the physical domain and the movement domain – and think about how a young person understands their body, their bodily functions, the way the bodily systems work, the way they respond to exercise, and how they gain health benefits from movement.

That kind of knowledge about movement can contribute to health literacy. So if we can support young people to understand how movement and their bodies adapt and respond and change in positive ways, we can start to provide them with tools that they need to become healthy.

Teaching students movement in the classroom
If young people understand how movement affects their bodies in positive ways, we can provide them with the tools to become healthy.

Use role-playing to explore health literacy

Karen: My example of health literacy is so current and it’s something that as adults we sometimes think that young people don’t pay attention to, but certainly going on around us, there’s a lot of information bombarding us around the health status of LGBTQI young people in Australia and their families around the plebiscite.

So I'd like to leverage that opportunity to think about mental health in the context of health literacy and what we can do in terms of an activity. A lot of calls have been made to call centers - something like a 20 – 25 percent increase in the number of calls made by young LGBTQI kids to help lines looking for support around this really stressful time.

I'd like to bring to class this opportunity for young people to role model the types of phone conversations that they might be able to have with each other around any kind of issue that's causing them stress or heartache in their families or in their communities. This brings something that's really topical as an example to young people in terms of mental health and developing their strengths, skills and abilities.

We know the data is suggesting that young people are accessing services, and it's a fantastic thing that we are actually getting these calls. It's terrible that we've got an increase, but it's a great thing for us to be able to leverage their ability to be able to make the decision to make a call.

Student discussion
Role-playing in the classroom is a great way to explore issues such as those surrounding mental health.

Can we apply this to the rest of the young people in our classrooms? Most definitely, yes. And I think role-playing would be a way in which to do that.

Unpacking the conversations that young people might have around what's worrying them, what's stressing them, and then taking the conversation more broadly into their everyday lives around school, study, relationships, friends and family - beyond the LGBTQI debate - can be useful because most of us feel affected by mental health issues at particular times.

I think it's really important to ground those things in the sorts of teachings that we can do in and around health literacy.


Developed by Monash University and published in collaboration with ACHPER, Health and Physical Education: The Five Propositions is a set of five cards that can be used by teachers, educators and university students as a tool to help support their emerging understandings of the five propositions of the new Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education.

These cards are available through the ACHPER website.