Skip to main content

Navigating Literacy Development During Adolescence


What factors contribute to the development of literacy skills in adolescence?

On this episode of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Critical Window podcast, Dr. Medha Tare breaks down what research on the science of adolescent learning says about the development of literacy skills during adolescence, and how educators can support this development.

Tare is a senior research scientist for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise, where she leads the synthesis of research on the cognitive, social-emotional, and student background factors that affect K-12 learning. Specifically, Tare studies the factors that affect how children and adults acquire new skills and knowledge including individual differences, learning environment, and the medium through which they learn. She shares these factors and how Digital Promise’s Learning Variability Project helps students, parents, and educators navigate literacy development on Critical Window.

What is Learner Variability?

“Recognizing learner variability is something many teachers have tried to do for decades,” explains Tare on Critical Window.  “It’s understanding in a whole-child way a students’ challenges and strengths and then tailoring instruction to meet each learner’s needs.”

What does this look like in practice? Tare shares an example:

“One learner may struggle with working memory, their ability to hold information in mind and kind of manipulate it. But is this challenge a learning difference, or is it because they’re getting too little sleep? Maybe they’re taking care of younger siblings while their single mom works the night shift. So research supports both assumptions and we also show strategies for working with students in both situations.”

Learner Variability vs. Learning Styles

There is a difference between learner variability and what many know as “learning styles.” Research does not support the existence of learning styles, or “the idea that learners have a particular modality like visual or auditory where they learn best,” explains Tare.

Instead, learner variability is steeped in research of factors that matter in learning. “These could be students’ attention abilities, how much exercise they’re getting, the safety of their neighborhood, and building block skills such as background knowledge,” says Tare. “We know that these factors interact with each other, so we know that greater physical fitness can improve attention and focus in the classroom.”

Why Does Learner Variability Matter for Adolescents?

There are specific learner factors that predict successful literacy outcomes, including argumentative reasoning, disciplinary literacy, and critical literacy, explains Tare. “Those are skills that are developing and really coming online for adolescents at this age.”

But, there are also other factors at play for adolescents, including identity exploration, cultural lenses, and changes in motivation.

“Students are now using those foundational reading and writing skills that they developed in elementary and middle school to build knowledge and then write and read authentic text and write for authentic audiences and purposes that are meaningful to them, that motivate them,” says Tare.

To learn more, listen to full episode of Critical Window below.

[powerpress url=”″]


Adolescent Literacy Learner Model:

Learner Variability Project:

Designing for Learner Variability: Examining the Impact of Research-based Edtech in the Classroom

Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple MusicStitcher, or wherever you find podcasts.