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Tar Heel Reader, a joint project between the Department of Computer Science and the UNC School of Medicine Department of Allied Health Sciences, celebrated 10 million books accessed on January 31, 2017.

 Dr. Karen Erickson speaks with DAHS chair emeritus Dr. Lee McLean on January 31, 2017.
Dr. Karen Erickson speaks with DAHS chair emeritus Dr. Lee McLean on January 31, 2017.

Tar Heel Reader (THR), an eight-year-old collaborative venture between the Department of Allied Health Sciences’ Center for Literacy and Disability Studies and the Department of Computer Science, celebrated 10 million books read on its innovative platform on January 31, 2017.

Dr. Stephen Hooper, DAHS chair and associate dean, said the THR platform is a remarkable asset for the University that happens with focused effort.

“All of us want to make a difference in the lives of individuals,” he said. “Tar Heel Reader reinforces why we do what we do at this University.”

The THR platform invites people from around the world to write and publish free, easy-to-read, books available on topics of their choice. People of all reading abilities create drafts of books and use the open-source image website, Flickr, to illustrate them.

As of late 2016, THR’s authors have published nearly 50,000 books on the platform. Users from more than 200 countries have read books on the site, totaling 10 million books read as of January 7, 2017. While most of the books are geared toward beginner level readers with disabilities learning to read English, books on the THR site are also read by adults learning English as a second language, high school students learning languages other than English, and people across the world accessing books on the site in 26 languages other than English.

Dr. Karen Erickson, the center’s director and the David E. & Dolores (Dee) Yoder Distinguished Professor of Literacy and Disability Studies, remarked that support for THR has thrived thanks, in part, to the collaboration with the Department of Computer Science. Erickson is also a professor in the department’s Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

Gary Bishop, a professor in the Department of Computer Science, said the easily accessible content allows children to learn to read, even those who face disabilities.

“It has been a tremendous blessing to work on this project with a great group of people,” he said.

Kevin Guskiewicz, PhD, and dean of the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, said the initiative represented synergy unleashed, a common theme of several initiatives at the University.

“It takes leadership to carry on,” he said. “You’re exemplary examples of the kind of work that our faculty can do.”

In late 2016, the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies received a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education. The grant will build a shared reading interface to support the THR platform and to build a model to support its implementation into classrooms serving children with significant cognitive disabilities across the county.

“We built Tar Heel Reader without any funding with the goal of helping a particular group of children with disabilities learn to read,” Erickson said. “I couldn’t be more delighted to know we met that need and many others we didn’t imagine when we got started.”