Karen Erickson left the classroom more than 25 years ago, but she planned to return once she learned more about how to teach children with disabilities to read and write. But her plans changed, and now Erickson, 52, is the director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here she talks about how the center’s research is helping people around the world.
Q: Research shows between 70 and 90 percent of those with severe disabilities read and write at levels far below their peers. How does the literacy center help close the gap?
A: We do school-based research in order to develop and then test out instructional approaches, curriculums and technologies that will help students who struggle to become readers, writers and communicators. Almost all of our research happens in public schools with teachers and children.
Q: The center was established in 1990 as part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s medical school. How has the program grown and changed?
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A: I joined in 1992 as a Ph.D. student. At first, we were focused on a very narrow population of children who had physical disabilities and communication impairments but not learning or intellectual disabilities. But as time has gone on we’re dealing with a broader population of all students struggling to read, write and communicate.
Q: How many people are you reaching today?
A: We’ve had a few really big projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Those have provided us with the funding to create free online training materials for teachers, parents and therapists. Those have been completed more than 110,000 times, and each teacher or therapist can have anywhere from six to 60 students, so the number is in the hundreds of thousands.
Because the modules are online, we know we’re reaching English-speaking countries across the world. We have a significant impact in New Zealand, Australia and Canada and recently started doing work in Mexico and northern Europe. We know we’re having a much broader range than this tiny population we first started working on.
Q: How did your experience in the classroom affect your work?
A: I really feel like I haven’t learned anything as a researcher that I wouldn’t have learned as a teacher. It’s that I can learn it more quickly, and I have the time and resources to disseminate broadly. That time I spent as a classroom teacher was absolutely critical in everything I have done since. It still influences everything I do.
Q: Ten years ago, you and a colleague created the Tar Heel Reader, a free online library for beginning readers of all ages. How does it work?
A: Our goal when we created it was to end up with a library of 1,000 books. We figured out a critical method to teach students with complex disabilities to read and spell words, but we couldn’t figure out how to give them enough access to books to practice. You can’t become a better reader unless you’re reading tons of stuff that’s relatively easy for you to read. There was nothing out there.
The Tar Heel Reader is a collaboration with my colleague Gary Bishop who’s in the department of computer science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He decided that he wanted to use his skills as a computer scientist to make the world a better place. To date, we’ve had 11 million books read on Tar Heel Reader. Now we’re at 55,000 titles in eight languages.
Q: You donate all honoraria you and your staff receive back to the center. Why?
A: I knew that if the center was going to thrive that we needed to have a diverse funding stream. My colleagues and I do not do any independent consulting for pay and do not personally receive royalties for curriculum, technologies and other materials.
It’s one of the ways we manage conflict of interest, and it allows us to provide an honest opinion without people wondering if we’re just trying to line our own pockets. It also allows us to work with multiple companies at the same time, which helped to dramatically change the landscape in terms of available curricula, technologies and materials targeting students with the most significant disabilities.
All funds go back to special accounts that are then used to support Ph.D. students and pilot studies that lead to funded research down the road.
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Karen Erickson – Tar Heel of the Week
Born: July 5, 1965
Raised: Schenectady, N.Y.
Organization: Center for Literacy and Disability Studies
Family: Youngest of five siblings
Education: Cornell, SUNY-Albany, UNC-Chapel Hill
Award: The David E. and Dolores J. Yoder Distinguished Professor of Literacy and Disability Studies.