A Poster is Worth a Thousand Words

Author: Sara Patricia Chavarria

Time: 1 class period
Prepare overhead sheets for display
Materials: Overhead 1: Historical Posters


Historically, in the absence of TV and commercials, health officials in cities had to somehow communicate good health/hygiene practices to people in order to avoid the spread of disease. Taking into account language reading skills, pamphlets were not always the best policy. A more effective way of getting the message across was through the use of public health posters. In this engage lesson students will investigate historical public health campaign posters in order to learn how the medical community tried to change human behavior in order to combat disease.

Students will be able to:
i. List observations of PSA posters and provide evidence/examples of their observations through class discussion.

National Council for History in the Schools:
Historical Thinking Standards

  • Standard 2D: Evidence historical perspectives.
  • Standard 2G: Draw upon visual data, literary, and musical sources.

World History Standards

  • Era 8, Standard 3C: The student understands the interplay between scientific or technological innovations and new patterns of social and cultural life between 1900 and 1940.
  • Era 8, Standard 5A: The student understands major global trends from 1900 to the end of World War II.

Related and Resource Websites
Individual poster addresses:



1. Begin by displaying one of the historic health campaign posters taken from the following website http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/phs_history/contents.html.

2. As the class reviews the historic posters have students write down some of their observations while also specifically responding to the following questions:

a. What is the message/purpose of the poster?
b. What did you learn from it?
c. What emotions does it evoke? (Ex: Fear, shame, nationalism, maternal, etc.) Back up your answers with evidence/examples.
d. Who do you think is the target audience? Back up your answers with evidence/examples.
e. Would you have been part of the target audience? Why or why not?

3. When done, repeat the process with 2-4 more examples of the posters.

4. Finally, lead student discussions in which they share their analysis of the posters viewed.

5. Create a final list of the effective ways the posters communicated messages to the public. Address emotions, types of messages, and how target audiences were made obvious.

As a transition to the next lesson, end the class by asking students to discuss how these public service posters are different from public service posters of today. Are they basically the same? If time permits create a class list of these organized group observations.

After Day 1, students will prepare a research paper product based on their investigation. As noted, the format is left to the teacher’s discretion.

Embedded Assessment
Student observation notes and participation in discussion can be assessed.

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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