1,000 days, 2 million books read, 150 countries

In 150 countries around the world, people are learning to read because of the ideas of two UNC professors.

Karen Erickson, director of the UNC Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, and Gary Bishop, a professor of computer science, teamed up to create Tar Heel Reader, a vast online library for children and adults who want to improve their beginners reading skills.

The website hit 2 million books read on February 11, one thousand days after its launch in 2008.

“We had an idea in Chapel Hill, I translated the idea into a program and in a few days kids on the other side of the world are learning to read; that’s powerful stuff!” Bishop said.

Erickson said she first began thinking about this project when she realized normal kindergarten classrooms have hundreds of books. But for children with disabilities who might not be able to physically handle books, the number of books they can read is greatly limited ― which often prevents them from reading at the same level as other children their age.

“The idea was how could we build this online community for teachers to share books for their children?” Erickson said.

Tar Heel Reader allows certified users to create books and publish them to the website’s library for people all over the world to read. Around 15,000 books are available online, in 15 languages.

One aspect that sets Tar Heel Reader apart from similar websites is its simplicity. Users create books by choosing pictures through a search engine that sifts through tagged images on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Users then create a story by writing short sentences to go with the pictures.

By limiting the text field size, the website is able to keep books relatively simple and readable for beginning readers.

Bishop also created an option for use of alternative access modes, allowing children with physical disabilities to change pages and choose books by hitting just one or two buttons.

Bishop and Erickson recognized that children would not be the only group using the website to develop their reading skills. Tar Heel Reader offers a variety of books designed for different age groups, with topics ranging from Justin Beiber to dating.

Tar Heel Reader is also used by a large population of adults who want to learn another language, with the eighth largest percentage of hits coming from adults in Korea who want to learn English.

Erickson attributes the massive spread of Tar Heel Reader to the use of WordPress, a blogging software, as its publishing format. WordPress users can link Tar Heel Reader to their blog, allowing followers to see it.

“I honestly think it was the brilliant idea to use WordPress,” she said. “I think that’s how people keep stumbling upon it.”

Tar Heel Reader supports the Innovate@Carolina Roadmap, UNC’s plan to help Carolina become a world leader in launching university-born ideas for the good of society. Learn more about the roadmap.