, Volume 54, Issue 5, pp 303-305
Date: 30 Jul 2009

Defining and measuring health literacy: what can we learn from literacy studies?

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Previous contributions to this series of editorials and other recent papers have highlighted the growth in interest in health literacy, as well as continuing debate about its definition, measurement and importance (Kickbusch 2009; Wills 2009; Abel 2008; Nutbeam 2008; Coulter and Ellins 2007). In further advancing these debates there is much to be gained from an appraisal of the underlying concept of literacy.

Literacy is an important but complex concept. Generally it is acknowledged as having two distinctive elements: those that are task-based, and those that are skill-based (National Assessment of Adult Literacy 2003). Task-based literacy focuses on the extent to which a person can perform key literacy tasks such as read a basic text and write a simple statement. Skill-based literacy focuses on the knowledge and skills an adult must possess in order to perform these tasks. These skills range from basic, word-level skills (such as recognising words) to higher level skills (such as drawi

Don Nutbeam is currently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton (UK) having spent much of the past 20 years at the University of Sydney, Australia. For the period 2000–2003, he was Head of Public Health in the UK (Blair) government Department of Health. His research interests have included public health intervention research in schools and communities as well as studies of health literacy, and adolescent health behaviour.