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Health literacy is an important health promotion concern and recently children and adolescents have been the focus of increased academic attention. To assess the health literacy of this population, researchers have been focussing on developing instruments to measure their health literacy. Compared to the wider availability of instruments for adults, only a few tools are known for younger age groups. The objective of this study is to systematically review the field of generic child and adolescent health literacy measurement instruments that are currently available.
A systematic literature search was undertaken in five databases (PubMed, CINAHL, PsycNET, ERIC, and FIS) on articles published between January 1990 and July 2015, addressing children and adolescents ≤18 years old. Eligible articles were analysed, data was extracted, and synthesised according to review objectives.
Fifteen generic health literacy measurement instruments for children and adolescents were identified. All, except two, are self-administered instruments. Seven are objective measures (performance-based tests), seven are subjective measures (self-reporting), and one uses a mixed-method measurement. Most instruments applied a broad and multidimensional understanding of health literacy. The instruments were developed in eight different countries, with most tools originating in the United States (n = 6). Among the instruments, 31 different components related to health literacy were identified. Accordingly, the studies exhibit a variety of implicit or explicit conceptual and operational definitions, and most instruments have been used in schools and other educational contexts. While the youngest age group studied was 7-year-old children within a parent-child study, there is only one instrument specifically designed for primary school children and none for early years.
Despite the reported paucity of health literacy research involving children and adolescents, an unexpected number of health literacy measurement studies in children’s populations was found. Most instruments tend to measure their own specific understanding of health literacy and not all provide sufficient conceptual information. To advance health literacy instruments, a much more standardised approach is necessary including improved reporting on the development and validation processes. Further research is required to improve health literacy instruments for children and adolescents and to provide knowledge to inform effective interventions.