Learners as Teachers: What They Taught the Health Professionals

Hi Everyone,

I recently posted about a conference session where adult learners (and teachers) would be the expert panelists, helping to educate health and medical professionals about how to communicate more clearly with patients and the general public. (Click here to see that post.) The session was last Thursday and I wanted to tell you how it went.

We had three adult learners and four tutors at the session. They were from a local library-based adult literacy program called Read/OC. One woman was from Vietnam, has been studying English with her tutor for one year, and told us that she had never spoken into a microphone before. Although her English was still at a very beginning level, she bravely spoke (with a hand-held mic!) to the crowd of 70 health professionals about her experience using her new skills -- with the help of her tutor -- to get a driver's license and open a bank account.

We also heard from an African American man with developmental disabilities, who grew up in the south at a time when education was not only segregated, but doubly hard to access for those like him who were labeled "mentally retarded". He talked about what it is like to communicate with doctors, and gave some examples of what could make it easier. He suggested sending people home with DVD's that explained what you had to do, and making a talking pill box that told you how to take the medicine when you open the lid!

This man's 85-year-old mother came with him, and told her own stories of raising her son by herself and working for many years as a medical assistant with her 6th grade education. She talked about how she was often put in charge of re-explaining things to patients who had not understood their medicine instructions or other important information. (For example, a woman who had been given birth control pills and came back in, upset to be pregnant again. She had not been told clearly how to take the pills and assumed she could just take one before having sex.)

The health professionals seemed to really appreciate hearing from this panel. Here are some of their comments and things they said they learned:

  • "Understanding the family dynamics is key to understanding some of the challenges people are facing."
  • "It was nice to put a 'human face' on the importance of health literacy."
  • "It was good to get a dose of empathy to take back to work."
  • "I enjoyed hearing the first-hand perspectives of the 'learners'. It really opened my eyes to different cultural and personal perspectives, and it made me sensitive and aware. It also reminded me not to judge people, but rather to appreciate them. Everyone had a story and we all learn something from them. :)"

It was really nice to see the learner/teacher tables turned! I'd love to hear any comments about this approach.

All the best,



Julie and others,

It is terrific to hear about the adult learner health literacy leaders at this conference. It reminds me of one of the pioneers in adult learner health literacy, Archie Willard, from Eagle Grove Iowa. Archie learned to read in his fifties, but was a leader in many realms before that -- for example, in his family, community, church, and labor union. For many years now he has focused on helping health professionals understand how to help adults who cannot read well to get good health care.

I am glad to hear that there are other adult learner leaders who are helping health care professionals to understand how to serve adults who cannot read well, and I have some questions for you, Julie:

  • What questions did the health care professionals ask the adult learner leaders?
  • How were the adult learner leaders' travel expenses paid for? Did the conference pick that up?
  • Were the adult learner leaders paid for their time or did they do this as volunteers?
  • Do you know if there is a regional or national group of adult learner leader health literacy advisors or speakers? (We need this)
  • Do you -- or others reading this -- see other opportunities for these or other adult learner health literacy leaders to speak or advise health care providers?

Incidentally, readers might like to read Archie Willard's autobiography, Last Reader Standing, available in paperback and Kindle versions from Amazon.com .

All the best,

David J. Rosen




Thanks, David, good questions!

I, too, think it's great to see this happening. Too much of the time, learners are seen mostly for what they don't know, and in many cases they have so much knowledge to share with us all. In this case, they are really the experts at how to communicate most effectively with people who are trying to make sense of health information. Many people who are well educated-- and speak English as their first language-- also have lots of trouble understanding health professionals and public health messages. The NAAL study found that only about 1 out of 10 American Adults are "proficient" in health literacy. And it is this proficient level that has been shown to be necessary to function effectively in healthcare and self care. 

The strong feeling in the health literacy community is that health information should be delivered with principles of universal design: it should be clear to everyone. Adult learners can help us with that. If we can learn to make messages clear to them, the messages will be better for everyone.

So here are the answers to your questions:

  • The health professionals asked the learners how it felt to communicate with doctors. They asked about the shame associated with not having good literacy skills. They asked a surprising amount about literacy programs in general and how people (both learners and healthcare agencies) could find programs. We, the facilitators, asked the learners and teachers to tell us what the barriers were to good communication, and what made it easier for them.
  • The learners were paid a stipend for their participation, and the literacy organization was given a donation to cover the teacher's time and the effort made to recruit the students. The learners and teachers lived very close to the conference hotel, and the learners got rides with the teachers, whose parking was paid for. They all got VIP Speaker name tags. Also, the literacy organization was given a full set of IHA's book series, What to Do For Health. This is a series of health books written at a 3rd to 5th grade level. There is a curriculum that goes along with them and they can be a useful authentic material to use in literacy classes.
  • I don't know of any regional or national groups of adult learner leaders. I agree that this would be a great thing to develop. Although, I think this is probably best done organically in one's local community, as we did for this conference in Orange County. One reason is that it is hard to pay for long distance travel, and most learners and teachers cannot take much time off. Also, it is good to start to develop a relationship between the literacy organization and the conference planners and local participants. I am hoping that some of the attendees of this session will reach out to READ/OC to connect with the program. I did see lots of private conversations and exchanges of contact information after the session!
  • Your last question was about other opportunities for adult learners to speak or advise health care providers. I will answer that in a separate post, but I would first like to ask the group here for ideas. What do you all think? What kinds of advisory roles can you envision for students and teachers?

Please share your thoughts with us!