Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Real-World Responses in Real Time: Social Inequality in Access to COVID-19 Information

Whether you are a trained healthcare provider, a grocery store clerk, or a retired professor, you are probably seeking information about COVID-19 and how best to take care of yourself and others. However, your age, level of education, and other factors may influence how you seek information and how likely you are to benefit from it.

IES researchers Dr. Taka Yamashita (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and Dr. Phyllis Cummins (Miami University) have been exploring the intersection of education, age, health, and problem solving (grant R305A170183). Program officer, Dr. Meredith Larson, spoke with them about their work and its implications during the current pandemic.

 

What has the COVID-19 epidemic brought to your attention?

For us, the COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted health information disparities by education and basic skills. In combination with other risk factors, like older age and lower income, some sub-populations are particularly vulnerable in the public health crisis. It is our sincere hope that our research underlines the urgent needs to promote education, literacy, and numeracy throughout the life course, not only to protect vulnerable populations but also to promote disaster preparedness and the well-being of our society.

What does your research suggest are important factors for predicting health information seeking behavior?

In general, we often seek health information only when we need it due to poor health. What is interesting is that, when we need health information, some sociodemographic characteristics and basic skills (for example, reading and numeracy skills) lead to differences. For example, in our analysis of PIAAC data, older age is related to lower usage of online health information sources while greater literacy skills are related to use of more online health information sources. Also, people with greater educational attainment and higher literacy skills are more likely to seek disease prevention and health promotion information from online sources and books. Overall, age, education, and literacy skills are closely and consistently related to what kind of health information sources people use and how much they do it.

How might these factors affect what people find or whether they benefit from it?

Age, education, and literacy skills differentiate how and where people seek health information. We believe that the Internet is one of the best information sources in terms of timeliness and amount of available information. However, some sub-populations, such as younger adults, those with higher education, and those with higher literacy skills, tend to take advantage of and benefit from the online health information more than their counterparts. As such, older adults, those with lower education, and those with lower literacy skills tend not only to miss online health information sources but also to under-utilize and/or mis-use health information.

What could information providers do to better reach different audiences?

Information providers could consider how and where they publish their information. For example, older adults, those with lower education, and those with lower literacy skills tend not to use online sources. Therefore, it is critical to provide accessible health information to offline sources such as newspapers and healthcare professionals (for example, face-to-face with a physician or nurse). Also, paying attention to the “at-risk” populations’ needs is important. There are simple things like using a large font, plain English and multiple languages (for example, English and Spanish) that can immediately enhance the quality of health communication.

Where can people go to learn more about this line of research?

More information about our studies on education and literacy can be found on our IES grant page. Also, one of our recent articles on literacy skills, language use, and online health information seeking among Hispanic adults in the United States has been featured in the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) health communications science digest.


Written by Meredith Larson. This is the second in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges. The first blog post can be found here.

Real-World Responses in Real Time : COVID-19 Information Needs to Consider Literacy Gaps

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have a heightened need for information, literacy barriers can be life threatening. In the United States, roughly 20 percent of adults read at the lowest level, with another 33 percent still below proficiency1. Thus, many may be struggling to understand written guidance on COVID-19.

IES researchers at the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (R305C120001 and R305H180061) and their associated Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University are working to address the needs of adults with literacy skill gaps. Dr. Meredith Larson spoke to Dr. Daphne Greenberg and Dr. Iris Feinberg about their work in this area.

What are your concerns for adults with low literacy during the pandemic?

Daphne GreenbergIris FeinbergWe have known for a long time that the high prevalence of adults with low basic skills has consequences for both the individual and society. These consequences are heightened during this pandemic. Many adults with low literacy have “essential” jobs and must continue to work. They often interact with many different people daily. So it is crucial that they understand COVID-19 precautions for their own health and because their ability to know and practice safe behaviors has a direct impact on disease transmission to others. To be quite frank, we are concerned about the health and safety of our learners and the health and safety of others.

In the United States, we receive an overwhelming amount information about COVID-19 daily. To make matters worse, there’s no uniform national guidance, some of the information is incorrect, and other information is conflicting. It is challenging for highly literate individuals to make sense of it all. For example: When can a COVID-positive person step out of quarantine? Can someone be re-infected? How many feet constitute safe distance? The list of questions goes on and on.

For someone with low literacy, it’s even more difficult to make sense of all the COVID-19 information. For example, people with low reading skills may not be able to read or understand all of the written information. Additionally, because much of the information is on the internet, adults with low digital skills and/or poor access to the internet have the added problem of not being able to find information that could possibly be helpful to them.

How are you trying to address their needs?

We’ve created a library with a large sample of materials written for 9th grade reading levels and below available on the ALRC website. These documents provide specific information on topics like how to stop the spread or what to do if someone in your home has COVID-19. We hope that providers who work with adults with low literacy skills—like adult educators, community organizers and healthcare providers—will use our library and find the high-interest/low-literacy materials. The library is also divided into “easier” and “harder” resources, so people can quickly find material at appropriate reading levels.

What could healthcare providers, the media, or others do to help?

We all must help those who may not know where to find information. Not everyone knows how or where to look for health information or whether the information they find is valid. Our analysis of PIAAC data found that people with low literacy rely more on TV and radio for information. Simple, short public service announcements that are action oriented would be great for anyone who relies on TV or radio but particularly for those who have low reading skills.

Also, we need to be better prepared for all kinds of emergencies by creating community-wide partnership plans among trusted sources for adults with low literacy like community organizations, healthcare providers, and adult education providers. In addition, we should be following plain language guidelines in all of our written and oral communications. Writing health information in plain language helps everyone and should not be an afterthought.

 


Written by Meredith Larson. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges.


About the PIAAC

The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1 and below proficiency is Level 2. For more information about estimates of U.S. adult skills as measured by the PIAAC: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp