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Brenda Oriana Fuentes, M.Ed.

Photo of Brenda Oriana Fuentes, M.Ed.
Brenda Oriana Fuentes, M.Ed.
Research Associate/Instructional Specialist in Bilingual Education, University of Texas, El Paso, Texas
Health Literacy and ESL: Integrating Community-Based Models for the U.S.-Mexico Border Region

Administered by the NHLBI Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, Clinical Applications and Prevention Branch
FY 2009 Recovery Act Funding: $231,804

Brenda Fuentes, 28, leads a double life when it comes to language. Born in El Paso, Texas, she lived and went to elementary school across the border in Mexico, while her parents worked toward gaining U.S. residency. Beginning in middle school and to the current day, Fuentes continued her education in American schools. She easily toggles between English and Spanish at work and at play, and this agility makes her an incredibly valuable commodity in the behavioral research world.

Research Focus: Fuentes recently completed a master's degree in bilingual education and is working with NHLBI grantee Francisco G. Soto Mas, Ph.D., an associate professor of health education at the University of Texas, El Paso. Dr. Soto Mas wants to find ways to increase health literacy – the ability to read, understand, and use health care information to make decisions and follow instructions for treatment.

His focus is on the Hispanic population living near the U.S.-Mexican border. This group has a particularly low health literacy rate, which contributes to higher rates of illness and death. Through his research, Dr. Soto Mas aims to improve health literacy through community-based education and outreach.

Grant Close-Up: Fuentes is working with Dr. Soto Mas on a project to integrate health literacy lessons into an existing curriculum for English as a Second Language (ESL) in El Paso. Since the grant was awarded in late 2009, the team has been working hard to prepare for a small test run in summer 2010, followed by two semester-long classes in the fall and in spring 2011.

She and Dr. Soto Mas have teamed with El Paso Community College to recruit students and teachers for the ESL courses. They are targeting students with low- to intermediate-level English skills, such that the difficulty of learning English from scratch doesn't interfere with the ability to comprehend more nuanced health information, described by the researchers as "life skills information."

"Most of these students are learning English for very practical reasons – to get into school or to get a job," Fuentes said. "Our hope and expectation is that once they get additional information about health, they will absorb it and go on to live healthier lives."

Class Time: Fuentes explains that the study will test whether combining health literacy components to English learning boosts students' health literacy, as measured by performance on pre- and post-study tests. The standard English language curriculum – the "control" group – will cover the basics, such as grammar and vocabulary.

The test, or "intervention," group, Fuentes explained, will have a slightly abbreviated English component in each of the twice-a-week sessions. However, this group will also be taught culturally sensitive, basic information about finding health care, completing health-related forms, communicating with health care providers, and taking over-the-counter and prescription medications. Later in the course, they'll learn about risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, poor diet, smoking, and inactivity.

Learning on the Job: Helping Dr. Soto Mas to develop this research project from the ground up has been an amazing process, Fuentes said. Starting her career in an elementary school classroom, she can fully appreciate the need for well-designed, organized teaching materials that work in the real world.

"Seeing every step of learning from the classroom to the community is really meaningful to me," she said.

So much so that Fuentes isn't stopping with this current project: She has applied to earn a Ph.D. After completing a doctoral program in Teaching, Learning, and Culture, she hopes to be running her own research on literacy/biliteracy and teaching at a university soon after that.

Economic Impact: From the research team's perspective, the project has had significant value in bringing together a talented group of people who may have not found each other otherwise. The group includes teachers, health care providers, linguists, and social scientists.

However, the ability to hire people from the community has been an important stimulus for the local economy and for community morale. Most of the payoff from this research, Fuentes predicted, will come from the ability to empower community members to manage their health and reduce the burden of disease in a relatively poor region of the country.

By Alison Davis, Ph.D.

Last Updated:August 10, 2010

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