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Facilitating growth in literacy outcomes through Investigative Learning

Facilitating growth in literacy outcomes through Investigative Learning

Ariana Davis and Sophie Parsons explain how they use play-based learning stations and writing to engage students in literacy development.

Investigative learning is an evidence-based program incorporating a range of theories of child development, with play-based learning as a central component. It is set in a child-centred, flexible learning environment specifically tailored to student’s individual strengths, background and readiness. Real-life experiences and a rich variety of materials throughout the space ensure learning is authentic and meaningful, and students have opportunities to explore and create.

Teachers know that meaningful tasks in an authentic context equal engagement, and engagement equals learning. The impact of engagement and well-being on student learning outcomes were core reasons for initiating Investigative Learning at Balmain Public School (BPS). Over four years, we have collected data to measure the efficiency of our program in fostering early literacy and to help us reflect on ‘how’we implement our program in the BPS Early Stage One. Our Principal, Maria Lambos recently presented this data at an Iron Cove Network meeting this year.

What does our data show?

In 2015 Semester Two, prior to implementing Investigative Learning we had 14% of Kindergarten students achieving ‘below’ stage level in reading (below PM level 6). This number has steadily decreased over four years to 12% in 2016, 4% in 2017 and to 3% in 2018.

The amount of students achieving ‘above’ stage level has increased steadily over four years.  In 2015, 22% of students were achieving above stage level (reading above PM level 11) in Semester Two. Students achieving ‘above’ rose to 50% in 2016, grew to 60% in 2017 and rose further to 70% in 2018. Teacher observations have been that the Investigative Learning program is effective for both students with learning difficulties and high performing gifted and talented students. The reduction in students testing as below stage level and the increase in students above stage level sustains these observations. Student results in speaking and listening, and writing, showed similar growth.

The credibility of our data is supported by several factors. Reading levels are prescribed for ‘sound’, ‘at’ and ‘high’ levels in each semester to ensure consistent teacher judgement. For example, to achieve a stage level in Semester Two a student must be reading fluently and with comprehension at a level 6 or above. To achieve a ‘high’ level a student must be reading at a level 11 or above. Students are flexibly grouped and assessed across classes, which means a student is tested by the teacher who is taking their reading group as well as their class teacher, with teachers working together to agree on levels. We used our Best Start data to look at the entry points of our cohorts, and found them to be similar across the four-year period.

Although we know, from teacher observations and our data, that the program is highly effective, the next step for us has been to make the leap from knowing it works, to fine-tuning our understanding of ‘how’ it works. Breaking down the details of exactly what we do to integrate literacy outcomes into our daily program and facilitate that growth, has been part of our reflection process.

How are literacy outcomes present in play-based learning stations?

There are many different learning stations in the investigative classroom and they continuously evolve to align with the syllabus outcomes of our current program. Some stations facilitate less reading and writing than others but literacy outcomes are threaded through every station. We have observed that we can purposefully weave literacy into a learning area in these five ways:

Literature as provocation

Quality texts, multimodal texts, factual texts are strong starting points for a learning station to hook the students in. Fictional texts can be excellent provocations for a geography or construction learning station. This year our map-making station used ‘The Last Viking’ as a provocation for sparking geographical inquiry skills and concepts. For our art stations we used ‘Welcome to Country’ and other new Indigenous Australian texts as conceptual beginning points for paintings.

A print rich environment

A print rich environment is so much more than just a basic word wall. We do ‘love’ a word wall, but we create our own role, form and topic related vocabulary banks. For example, in our art station if the writing task was to complete the sentences ‘I used ______ in my artwork. My artwork is about__________’. Students would need access to the practical words of ‘paint, pastel, watercolour’ but also thematic words such as ‘friendship, family, adventures’.  Towards the end of the year we would enrich the task by adding adjectives as students moved from a simple sentence, ‘I used paint in my artwork’ to more complex ‘I used brightly coloured paint in my artwork’. Our print rich environment encompasses scaffolding that references previous explicit teaching. For example, first 100 sight word and initial sounds cards are included to support independent writing within the task. We also include quality texts that were initial provocations and environmental language to label the objects and processes within a learning area.

Dramatic role play

Development of literacy depends on oral language and the dramatic role-play aspects of our stations are crucial in building verbal communication skills. As students take on the role of ‘artist’ or ‘builder’, the conversations they have with each other are part of the process of making meaning and building vocabulary. Communicating, collaborating and developing inquiry skills happen fluidly through dramatic role-play.

A writing task

Many of our stations invite students to participate in a writing task. We prepare materials that encourage writing, but ideas for writing are usually student generated and students are invited rather than instructed to complete them. A writing task could look like creating a menu in the café area, a ‘Shop’ sign, tickets for the ‘art gallery’, postcards to characters in our small world play, letters, maps, little books. It is crucial that all tasks are differentiated and have different entry points. For example, in the post card area we provide different templates so students can select the appropriate line size and amount of scaffolding for themselves. Some templates might already have the words ‘to’ and ‘from’ on them, where others might require students to write the words themselves. We source materials and create tasks specifically to tempt our most reluctant writers and organise stations so writing tasks have meaning and purpose within the play. These writing tasks become important evidence for how a student’s skills are progressing.

Reflection on learning

Reflecting on learning provides opportunities for teachers to build on the language used throughout the process. Drawing the classes’ attention to written and oral language skills in examples of high quality work is pivotal during this time to ensuring learning is visible and expectations are explicit.  You might refer back to your initial provocations in this time and the process starts to feel circular in nature. This ensures that student expectations of their own work continually evolve.

How do I know literacy is successfully embedded in my play-based program – what does consistent growth look like in the classroom?

We have found some of the signs that literacy outcomes are successfully embedded in our program are:

Extended engagement

We know a learning station is working when students become wrapped up in the task for weeks on end. You may find yourself adjusting the provocation slightly each week to extend a task. Adding the compass rose to a map-making task one week, encouraging students to use a key the next week. When a station is highly engaging, students will spend days in a row writing the same type of ‘postcard’ or ‘menu’. This repetition facilitates mastery and a state of flow, so that students are consistently ‘in’ task.

Every student is an enthusiastic writer

We rotate the topics and provocations of our writing centres to target the most reluctant writers, creating specific stations to engage students that are struggling, where they are supported by friends and peers in their explorations of literacy. For example, if you have a child obsessed with dinosaurs, you can set up a ‘dinosaur area’ with initial sounds linked to different dinosaurs, and create maps of where dinosaurs live (even if you as a teacher really don’t like dinosaurs!). This ensures all children spend the amount of time engaged in reading and writing that is required to kick-start their positive engagement with literacy.

Assessment exists easily within the investigative process

Work samples produced in investigations are a valid snapshot of a child’s progress and can be used to inform reporting. We have a clear understanding of what a ‘sound’ and a ‘high’ look like in an investigative writing sample. We include work samples in literacy books as evidence of progress, as we find children show us what they are really capable of when working on interest-based tasks.

Robin Ewing (2018) states, ‘Learning to be literate is a highly complex contextualised social practice – not a series of hierarchical skills’. The individualised, child-centred nature of our program has gifted us continuous room to reflect on the multitude of ways that learning about literacy happens, and the links between context, memory and the building of skills. As each teacher brings different background knowledge, interests, talents, training and skills to the creation of learning areas, play based learning can be a lovely melting pot of pedagogies; one where we appreciate the richness of the learning process and every child can feel truly known and valued on their literacy journey.



Davis, A. & Parsons, S. (2019). Investigative learning – our journey at Balmain Public SchoolScan, 38(2).

Ewing, R. (2018). Seven things teachers agree on about teaching reading in Australia. Stop all the political haranguing over phonicsEduResearch Matters, Australian Association for Research in Education.

Walker, K. (2011). Play matters. Investigative learning for preschool to grade 2 (2nd ed.). Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press.