What Is ESOL Health Literacy, and Why Do I Need to Know About It?

This article details how health literacy is relevant to English lanuage learners (ELLs), reviews what the research tells us so far, and gives suggestions and resources to address health literacy in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction.

Kate Singleton
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Virginia Adult Literacy Resource Center
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This chapter from the Virginia ESOL Health Literacy Toolkit explains health literacy as it pertains to English Language Learners (ELLs). Topics include how health literacy should be defined for ESOL learners; what health literacy skills ELLs need; how to deal with the ELL fear factor of using American healthcare; and what research tells us about health literacy for ELLs. Concludes with 8 things ESOL Educators can do to help their students be better prepared for the U.S. healthcare system:

  1. Update what is taught about health and health care, especially at the lowest levels.
  2. Start at the lowest EOSL levels.
  3. Become familiar with local affordable care resources and share information with learners.
  4. Seek out or develop ESOL teaching materials that can convey complex messages on health and health care in simple ways for lowest level learners. Make sure materials promote learner interaction and participation.
  5. Know basic information on important federal and health care policies affecting learners.
  6. Be familiar with medical field communication strategies in support of health literacy. Create simple lessons to help learners practice these strategies.
  7. At a program level, partner with other fields and organizations.
  8. Learn what quality health information is available online to make the job easier.
What the experts say

This is an excellent overview of why health literacy is a critical issue for English Language Learners (ELLs), what skills they need, and how ESOL educators can address these needs. It includes practical guidance on how to integrate health literacy into an existing ESOL curriculum, and also provides a good, concise background of what is happening in the healthcare field to provide more health literate care. It should be required reading for all program administrators, teacher trainers and teachers in practice.

This resource will be helpful in encouraging ESOL programs to address health literacy explicitly. Teachers will find the materials in the resources and references helpful in identifying content and instructional approach. The author does not discuss how to work with ESOL learners who arrive in the US with non-scientific and traditional theories of disease and treatment that can be in sharp conflict with the American medical scientific model.

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