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Preteen Girls With Low Literacy More Likely to Bear Children as Teens

Poor reading ability puts preteen girls at risk of having children during their teen years, shows new research from the University of Pennsylvania.

Teenage girl reading book-- by Jenara Nerenberg

The Gist

The issue of literacy and reading skill is not likely to come up when preteens sit in their doctors' offices, but it should, says new research coming out of the University of Pennsylvania. The research's findings says that preteen girls with below average literacy are more likely to get pregnant during their teen years. Just as a doctor may prescribe birth control during an office visit, a directive to literacy improvement programs may be helpful as well. This research is being presented today at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting, where this year's themes center around how social, environmental, and behavioral factors affect people's health.

The Expert Take

"This study underscores the importance of investing early in programs to improve literacy across the board, said Dr. Rosemary Frasso, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania and APHA presenter, in an interview with Healthline. "The potential reduction in teenage childbearing is one of the many positive payoffs here."

Frasso points out that because African American and Latina girls were found to have lower literacy levels, literacy programs may particularly help prevent unwanted teenage pregnancies in those groups. "Education success and better literacy in young children is protective for preventing teenage childbearing, particularly for Latina and African American girls."

Source and Method

The reading scores of 12,339 girls with an average age of 11.9 years were assessed, alongside records of live births among those girls from 1996 to 2002. Girls who had below-average reading skills were 2.5 times more likely to bear a child during their teen years as compared to preteens who had average reading skills. The research was carried out by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and looked at girls who were enrolled in Philadelphia public schools. 

The Takeaway

If low literacy puts preteen girls at risk of conceiving children during their teenage years—and it is, in part, up to doctors to help children make the best decisions for their health—then doctors should consider helping their preteen girl patients get connected with literacy improvement programs. Likewise, educators, parents, and young girls themselves can seek out extra help in school or from outside programs. The message from this study and similar studies is that multiple factors influence health. In this case, literacy plays a significant role.

"Public health and healthcare providers and policy makers should recognize the very strong link between early education and teen childbearing when considering interventions to reduce this outcome," said Frasso. "More collaboration between educators and healthcare providers would also be a good idea."

Other Research

An early study on literacy and health from the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved helps to understand how the two are related, and highlights how low literacy impacts people's abilities to understand doctor instructions, lab results, medication directions, and other information. A 2002 study from Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health looks at the impact of youth development programs on teenage pregnancies and how condom use and other preventive behaviors result from such programs. And a 2000 study from Pediatrics finds that focusing on literacy in the doctor's office even earlier in a child's life, such as during the infant years, greatly improves literacy down the road for those children. As such, literacy holds the potential to create lasting health outcomes in the teenage years and beyond.
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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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