Health literacy, considered a 21st Century theme by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, is, “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” (Nielsen-Bohlman, 2004). A health literate person is able to make appropriate decisions about their health as he or she progresses through life, as health care changes, and as societal norms change. The benefits of being health literate influence the full range of life’s activities—home, school, work, society and culture (Zarcadoolas, 2005).
Lack of physical activity and exercise, poor nutritional choices, increased violence, increased substance abuse and other high risk behaviors are serious threats to living a healthy, active life. The essential concepts and skill sets for health literacy provide a framework for building capacity among Iowa’s students to think critically about the decisions that affect health status for themselves, their families and their communities. Learning the concepts will form the knowledge base for the development of attitudes and habits of mind that will lead students to take responsibility for their personal health status. This proactive approach will have profound effects on families and society.
The essential concepts reflect the belief that children need to assess media messages at young ages and then develop critical evaluation skills as they intellectually, emotionally and socially mature (Zarcadoolas, 2005). Children must also take an active role in accessing and appropriately using information which affects their health (Nutbeam, 2000, St. Leger, 2001). Therefore, it is important to integrate the essential concepts and skill sets for health literacy across content areas, providing relevant contexts, problem based and service learning experiences. This will provide students opportunities to practice systemic thinking and problem solving processes that will lead to the creative solutions and proactive policies necessary to enhance health status in an interconnected, global society.