Picture Stories for Adult esl health Literacy

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Picture Stories for Adult ESL Health Literacy

Adapted from Singleton, K. (2001.) "Picture Story Two: A Doctor's Appointment " Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Available: http://www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/Health/

Adapted by the Medical Interpretation Advisory Board, a coalition seeking increased access to quality health care for the limited English proficient and Deaf and hard of hearing in New Hampshire.

The picture stories are:

  • Designed to help ESOL instructors address topics that affect the health and well-being of their students.

  • Useful for beginner and low-literacy students. Newcomers to the United States and adults with lower literacy tend to have the least awareness of and access to health care services, thereby running the risk of more serious and chronic health outcomes. Words are kept to a minimum in the stories to give just enough information to convey an idea without becoming too distracting for students with very low literacy.

  • Designed to be safe, impersonal prompts to allow students to discuss difficult topics, ask questions, and obtain information. As the stories are about cartoon characters, the students should not feel pressure to disclose their own experiences on the topic if they don't want to.

  • Adaptable for use at different levels.

What groups of students are the picture stories suitable for?

The stories "Emergency," "A Doctor's Appointment," and "Stressed Out" are suitable for most classes, as the topics are common and uncontroversial. "What Should She Do?," however, should be used with discretion, as its topic of domestic violence may evoke strong reactions and discomfort, especially if a class member has experienced domestic violence personally or knows someone who has.

How can the stories be used in class?

The Language Experience Approach (LEA) is an effective way to use the picture stories with beginners.

Benefits of LEA:

  • Uses the students' own language, experiences and observations to create a product, their own story.

  • Promotes speaking, listening, reading and writing, while letting students decide on the content.

  • Life skills are discussed, and the students negotiate to come up with a story on which all can agree.

Suggested LEA procedure:

  • The teacher can ask the students what is happening in each frame of the story. She can ask questions to elicit specific details or observations, and if students don't have a clear idea of what to say, various scenarios can be discussed until the class chooses one they like.

  • Once the whole story has been elicited orally, the teacher tells the students that she will write it down as they retell it. While the students retell it, the teacher writes, trying to stay close to the students' own language. She can smooth it out for clarity's sake occasionally, but the story should be the students' product, based on their ideas.

  • The teacher can ask questions again to make sure important information or vocabulary is included.

  • After the story has been written, the class can practice reading it chorally and individually.

  • Students can then copy it down (it's best to leave this step until the end; if students are writing as the teacher is eliciting the story, they don't participate in the creation of the story.).
  • If reading is a skill focus of the class, various follow-up activities like sentence or word sequencing, or cloze activities can be done in a later class. If oral skill development is the focus, retelling without reading could be practiced.

Are there any other considerations?

In using picture stories, teachers should carefully consider the images that they choose to use. Cartoons or similar drawings or illustrations that incorporate figures of isolated body parts may not be recognizable or comprehensible to all English language learners. This may be especially true for learners with limited literacy in their native languages. Drawings of people or body parts may even be offensive to some groups. Teachers need to be aware of these issues and be prepared to use alternative resources such as photographs, videos, or gestures.

Picture Story Two: A Doctor's Appointment

View the picture story.

Health literacy issues:

  • Speaking with a health care provider

  • The right to an interpreter

  • Patient self-advocacy; patient's responsibility to ask questions in brief clinical encounter

  • Clarification of treatment plan

  • Avoiding medication errors

  • Cultural perceptions of doctor/patient relationship

The basic story:

A man feels a pain and goes to the doctor. The doctor examines him, asks questions about the symptoms and gives him a lot of information. The man pretends he understands, but he doesn't speak much English and doesn't know what the doctor is saying. The doctor gives him a chance to ask questions, but the man doesn't ask any. He gets some new prescriptions but doesn't understand how to take them. At home one of his family members asks what the doctor said, and the man reports that he doesn't know. He is frustrated and confused.

Background information:

  • Students report and statistics bear out that they often don't understand what health care providers tell them in English, don't feel able to ask questions, and don't understand all the written instructions for medicines and treatment.

  • Fear of having to communicate in English keeps some from seeking treatment.

  • Federal law (Civil Rights Act of 1964) mandates that any facility receiving federal payments (including medicare, medicaid payments) must provide interpreters for patients whose English is limited. Specifically, the law prohibits discriminatory treatment on the basis of national origin by agencies receiving federal funds. While compliance with the law is not well-monitored, the use of trained health care interpreters is increasing in the medical field. Some health care organizations contract with interpreters who will interpret over the telephone. Others will arrange for an in-person interpreter.

  • Some cultures believe that a doctor is an expert and therefore should not be questioned. Students from such a background could benefit from learning the importance of the patient's asking clarifying questions in today's typically brief medical encounter, and their right to seek a second opinion.

  • Medication errors are a growing problem in the United States. While causes vary, evidence shows that many adults lack the literacy skills to understand medication information and instructions, which can lead to serious errors in their usage.

Suggested questions for prompting discussion while eliciting the story:

  • First frame: What's the matter with the man? What is his name? What should he do?
  • Second frame: Where is he now? Who is with him? What is the doctor doing? How is the man feeling?

  • Third frame: What is the doctor saying? What does the man say? Do you think the man understands the doctor? Why not? Why does he say "OK"?

  • Fourth frame: Now what is the doctor saying? What question does he ask the man? What does the man answer? Is that true?

  • Fifth frame: Now what does the doctor ask him? What does the man answer?

  • Sixth frame: Now the man leaves the doctor's office. What is in the picture with him? What is he thinking? What is the problem with taking the prescriptions?

  • Seventh frame: Now where is the man? Who is he speaking with? What does she ask him? How is the man feeling now?

  • Eighth frame: What does the man answer?

With the eighth frame the opportunity arises for particularly valuable discussion on language barriers in health care and what communication is expected of the patient in the U.S. health care system.

  • Has this ever happened to you? (Students have reported that "This is my story," or "The man is me!")

  • What advice can you give the man?
  • What can someone do if they don't speak much English and they need to see the doctor? (At this point the teacher can give information about the rights of limited English speakers and any interpreting options available in the community or through a doctor's office, e.g. the call-in interpreter banks. Other suggestions students have come up with include taking a friend or family member who speaks more English, or finding a doctor who speaks your language. Recommend against students serving as an interpreter for their family or friends, or asking their friends to do this for them. The friend or relative who speaks more English can help ask the doctor or hospital to provide interpreters. Family and friends in a medical appointment can support the patient and be a second set of ears. But it is not good to have them responsible for all the communication that happens in a medical encounter. There could be many technical medical terms used. Students should understand that interpreting is a burden they do not have to put on their family and friends, since health care providers are required to provide the service. The responsibility for relaying all the critical information should be on a professionally trained interpreter. There is no perfect answer, but it is important to know the law and discuss options.)

Role Play on How to Ask for an Interpreter

  • Receptionist – Glad you came today. Please wait. The Dr. will be with you in a moment.

  • Patient - My English is not good. Please may I have an interpreter?

  • Receptionist – (Big Sigh) The Dr. will be able to help you without an interpreter.

  • Patient – Please. It is important for me to have an interpreter. Please arrange for one. (Show paper with Office of Civil Rights phone number – 617-565-1340.)


Have students create their own “I Speak” Cards to help them understand they have a right to an interpreter and to give them a tool to use to request an interpreter be provided:

  • Have cardstock cut up into wallet size pieces – the same size as a business card

  • Have written on a black board for the students to copy:

    • “My name is ______________”

    • “I speak ___________________”

    • “My English is limited. Please request an interpreter”

  • Other additional information that can be included on the card:

    • “The Federal Civil Rights Act entitles all persons access to services provided by organizations that receive Federal funding (including Medicaid). Access includes providing interpretation services, at no cost to the client or patient, for people who are limited in their ability to speak or understand English.”

    • The phone number for the Office of Civil Rights – 617-565-1340

If want to create a folded card allowing for more print, the following can be added:

    • The phone number for various agencies that contract in-person interpreters:

      • The Language Bank – 800-244-8119

      • Cross Cultural Communication Systems – 888-678-2227

    • The phone number for agencies that provide interpreters over-the-phone:

      • Dt Interpreting - 877-229-8119

      • Language Line - 800-752-6096

  • What questions can this patient ask the doctor about the prescription medicines? (The class could brainstorm a list. Some examples of possible questions follow. Questions are simplified, but some may still be difficult for lower levels and some vocabulary may need explanation. You can decide how much and what kind of information your students is suited to your students' levels and needs. You may use these as a reference, or you may modify them for your students' level to make informational handouts or other activities.)

Questions to ask the doctor about your medicine

    1. What is this medicine?

    2. Why am I taking it?

    3. What does this medicine do?

    4. How many times a day to I take this medicine?

    5. What time of day do I take it?

    6. How long do I need to take it?

    7. When will I start feeling better?

    8. Can I stop taking this medicine if I feel better?

    9. What are ok side effects of the medicine?

    10. What are bad side effects of the medicine?

    11. What side effects do I need to call you for?

    12. Is it ok to drink alcohol with this medicine/this condition?

    13. Do I need to come back and have the doctor check my medicine?
      (Certain medicines require that the level of the medicine in the blood is regularly monitored.)
    14. Here are the names and doses of other medicines I'm taking now. Is it ok to take the new medicine with them? (Include over-the-counter medicines, prescriptions, vitamins, and herbs, from the United States and other countries.)

Additional Information

More advice for talking with doctors about your medicines

  • If you cannot read the doctor's handwriting on the prescription, ask him to write it again clearly so the pharmacist can read it, too.

  • Tell the doctor your allergies to medicines, and bad side effects you had from medicines in the past.

  • Write a list to show the doctor or hospital staff what medicines you are taking and how much you take. If you cannot write it, put your medicines in a bag and take them with you to the doctor.

  • Check before you leave the pharmacy that you got the correct medicine and that you understand how to take it. It is ok to ask the pharmacist questions.

  • Many pharmacies can print out instructions and information about the medicines in languages other than English. Ask your pharmacist.

General advice for patients in the doctor's office/hospital

(This information refers to what is expected from the patient in U.S. health care culture. It is simplified, but still uses useful health care vocabulary which may need to be introduced to your students. Again, you can decide how much and what kind of information is suited to your students' levels and needs. You may use these as a reference, or you may modify them for your students' level to make informational handouts or other activities.)

  • SPEAK UP. ASK QUESTIONS! Doctors want patients to be interested in their treatment. In the US doctors expect you to make decisions together with them. Doctors expect questions, even when they look busy!

  • If a doctor is busy, he or she sees the patient for only 10 minutes. Think of some questions before you go to the appointment so you get the information you need.

  • Take a friend with you who can help you ask questions and understand the doctor. Sometimes a friend is better than someone in your family, because a family member may not be comfortable speaking about your health and body. This person should not act as an interpreter. The doctor’s office or hospital should hire a trained interpreter. An interpreter should be a trained professional.

  • Make INFORMED DECISIONS. This means learn all you can about your problem and its possible treatments before you decide what treatment to have. Ask questions to doctors, nurses, and other people who had your problem. If possible, read information about it in books and on the Internet.

  • Be ready to tell the doctor what symptoms you have and how long you have had the symptoms.

  • In the US, be ready to tell the doctor your family's medical history. What big health problems did your parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters have? This helps the doctor know what to check for in you.

  • Take your time. Be sure to understand any document you are asked to sign.

  • If you are in the hospital, talk with the doctor or nurse before you go home about what you should do and what medicines you should take when you leave the hospital.

  • Make sure you understand everything. If you don't understand, ask more questions.

  • If you don't want to take a medicine or have an operation, you can ask the doctor if there is an alternative treatment. If you are not sure that surgery is the right thing for you, you can ask a different doctor for a second opinion. (You have to pay both doctors!)

  • If you don't hear test results in the time the doctor tells you, call the doctor to check on the results.

  • It is important for you to understand the care you are getting, and what to do to care for yourself.

More information about trained medical interpreters

  • Trained interpreters know and understand words a doctor uses – medical terminology – and will help you to understand too.

  • A trained interpreter will make sure the Doctor understands you.

  • A trained interpreter will make sure everyone understands each other.

  • A trained interpreter is a professional.

  • A trained interpreter is required to keep everything discussed confidential. A trained interpreter will not talk about you and your health to others.

  • Using a trained interpreter allows family members and friends to be at your side to support you and help you make decisions without also bearing the responsibility of interpreting, a job for a trained professional.

Copywrite Kate Singleton (2001)

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