Organic Literacy Strengthens Reading, Writing, and Relationships

Beth Peddle, a student in the M.Ed. Language and Literacy Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the grand prize winner of the inaugural Picture This: UNC Research Photo Contest, is eager to talk about her research. The 31-year-old has spent the past year at UNCW’s Watson College of Education studying “keywords,” an organic literacy approach designed to introduce children to reading by teaching them words that are important to their lives. Peddle’s research measures how vocabulary and early literacy can impact young students who have little connection and experience with printed words.

Peddles winning photo of her research on Keywords.Peddle’s photo of a young student who chose her classmate’s name, Destiny, as her keyword won first place in the 2014 Picture This: UNC Research Photo Contest.

Peddle’s interest in education began after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Appalachian State University. She went on to teach, initially entering the classroom through an alternative pathway to teaching called lateral entry.  In 2010, she enrolled at UNCW to earn a professional teaching license in birth through kindergarten. After teaching special education to young students, she entered UNCW’s language and literacy graduate program in 2013. In addition to her studies, Peddle serves as the early childhood literacy specialist for New Hanover County schools’ Pre-K program. Although she doesn’t manage a traditional classroom, Peddle enjoys teaching larger groups of children with diverse learning needs. She works with more than 250 students each week on story telling and reading. 

Dr. Kathy Fox, chair and professor in UNCW’s Department of Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle Level and Literacy Education, was the first to introduce Peddle to organic literacy, and to the keywords technique for teaching early reading and writing. She also encouraged Peddle to submit an entry to UNC’s Research Photo Contest introduced this spring by the University of North Carolina and UNC General Administration. 

“She introduced the keyword strategy and method to me,” Peddle says. “It’s like a light went off inside of me . . . This is what teaching should be about; it’s so simple, it’s so easy, it’s not forced, it’s so organic and natural. This method of working with kids comes naturally and kids really respond to it.”

Keywords: Passion and Purpose

Sylvia Ashton Warner developed the keywords method in the 1940s in New Zealand. Following Warner’s model and advice from Dr. Fox, Peddle speaks about keywords with great passion and purpose. She hopes to see it ultimately become part of the basic learning curriculum for students in kindergarten through high school.

Students wear the Keywords they chose.Students wear hats displaying the words they chose during a keywords session.

For younger students, the keyword method begins when a teacher asks a child “what word do you want me to write for you today?” The teacher writes the word the child chooses on an index card without judgment or influence. Children keep the keywords, collecting a new word each time they complete the exercise. Peddle says children are more likely to remember the words because “they are coming from their own vocabulary,” and “familiar words are easy to remember and retrieve.”  In her research, she has found that keywords can also be powerful tools for children learning English as a second language, children with learning disabilities and older students and adults struggling with reading.

Other advantages of the keyword method can extend beyond the classroom. Peddle says the method is also about relationship building.

“It reminds teachers that children have important things to say, important ideas and children’s language is important and should be valued,” she said. “Too much time is spent telling kids what we know, and what they should know, and not enough time talking about their interests.”

Peddle recalls a powerful story told to her by her professor and mentor, Dr. Fox, about teaching keywords. When working with a second grade class, a child gave a keyword the teacher understood as the word “berry.” Upon additional discussion the teacher learned that the child had meant the word “bury,” after recently experiencing the death of her younger sister. Peddle credits keywords as an important opportunity to make time to talk to students about what is going on in their lives, to provide teachable moments and to help children through academic and personal experiences they bring into the classroom.

What’s Next for Keywords?

In her last year at UNCW, Peddle looks forward to continuing her research and sharing her discoveries at workshops and conferences. She is currently developing a website that will serve as an online resource for the keywords technique, provide webinars for educators and make keyword dictionaries accessible to students and parents.

A young student practices writing his keyword.

This fall, Peddle will begin completing and tracking research assessments that she hopes may help demonstrate to teachers the effectiveness of keywords. Peddle admits that some teachers are reluctant to use keywords because they worry it will take too much time away from an already tight academic schedule.

“The method is designed to compliment current teaching methods, not replace them,” Peddle said. “[Teachers] can make keywords part of their daily literacy centers. When kids are already moving around the classroom, they can easily and quickly complete their keywords.”

In her current role as literacy coordinator, Peddle’s students participate in a keywords session when they visit her in the library. Peddle invites teachers to observe, and most often teachers note that students can remember their keywords weeks after the sessions take place. Peddle hopes that by demonstrating the program and its positive results, teachers can see first-hand the benefits it provides.

“Time and time again [this method] helps motivate kids not interested in writing,” Peddle says. “We are naturally more motivated to learn about things if we can choose what we want to learn. We can provide that by doing keywords.”

There is no doubt that Peddle is proud of her research and for obvious reasons. The benefits for children from Pre-K to high school and the potential to make a lasting impact on the learning and development of students that participate in the program are what make Peddle so passionate about its widespread implementation. Peddle believes that teachers can create and fuel programs like keywords through their own interaction with students.

“I encourage teachers to find what is interesting in their classrooms and think about how to share that information with other teachers,” she says. “If we collaborate with other teachers, we can be more successful.”


Picture This: UNC Research Photo Contest

The amateur photography competition was open to all graduate students currently enrolled at any UNC campus. Entries were judged on whether the image and accompanying caption or description convey knowledge gained through university research to a general public audience in a clear and compelling way and how the research can potentially benefit N.C. citizens and communities. View additional finalist entries.


Homepage caption: Beth Peddle works with students during her research on Keywords.
Photos by Beth Peddle