Literacy and Braille

Braille is a tactile system representing the written word, serving as an alternative to print for those with blindness or low vision. It’s not a language, but a code. This system represents the alphabet and words in languages like English. For braille users, it offers independent literacy. They can read and write unassisted. The braille code used today in the United States was invented by a Frenchman, Louis Braille, in the 1800s.

How Does Braille Work?

Braille writing comprises a series of raised dots formed into “cells” consisting of six dots in two vertical rows of three dots each. Many people refer to the dots in the cell by number, with dot one being the top left dot, dot two the middle left dot, dot three the bottom left dot, and, on the right side, from top to bottom, dots four, five, and six. The six dots in the cell can be arranged in 64 different combinations.

In braille, there is a dot configuration for each letter of the alphabet. You may hear the term uncontracted or grade one braille used to refer to words spelled letter-for-letter in braille as in print. Contracted or grade two braille uses what are termed “contractions” or short forms to write words. There are 180 contractions. For example, when the letter “b” (dots 1-2) stands by itself, it is the word “but.” Many contractions can be used as both whole words and part words. The contraction for the word “child” (dots 1-6), is also used within words to stand for the letters “ch” (part word), such as in the word “chop.”

A dot six is added in front of another letter configuration to capitalize a letter. This capital sign is one of several signs referred to as composition signs unique to the braille code; there are no equivalents in print.

Braille Paper and Braille Books

Braille books are embossed (printed) on special braille paper. Because braille letters take up more space than their equivalent in print and the raised dots take up more vertical space, braille books can be quite large and often require several volumes. However, braille can also be read from computer files using electronic devices known as refreshable braille displays connected to a computer. (For more information, see “How Students Who Are Blind Read and Write”).

Contracted Versus Uncontracted Braille

Most books that are prepared for braille readers are in contracted braille. Thus, many teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) will introduce children to contracted braille beginning in preschool. This method lets a child read and write words from the start, as they will eventually do. It also grants access to more braille materials. However, introducing contracted braille to young children has downsides. They must learn braille contractions alongside the 26 alphabet letters. Also, learning contracted forms, like writing “but” as “b,” might hinder their decoding and spelling skills compared to sighted peers.

Some TVIs begin by teaching uncontracted braille for the initial years. Then, they gradually introduce contractions in early elementary school. This approach helps the child develop a strong foundation in decoding and spelling. Only after this do they learn “shortcuts” through contractions. The disadvantage is the limited amount of uncontracted braille material available to the child.

The decision about whether your child should begin by learning uncontracted or contracted braille is complex. The TVI will need to weigh the options and discuss them with you and the other members of your child’s educational team to make a decision that will be appropriate for your child.

Learning Braille

When children learn braille, they must grasp similar concepts to those learning to read print. This includes pronouncing letters and decoding words. However, they also need extra skills, like feeling dots distinctly and moving smoothly along braille lines. Just as new print readers mix up letters like “b” and “d,” braille readers may confuse others, such as “e” and “i.” Braille involves more symbols, and learners don’t encounter all contractions and symbols until about the third-grade level. Regular practice with a TVI and classroom teacher is key for fluency.

As a parent, you can help your child’s braille learning. Read often, highlight print and braille, and consider learning braille yourself. The Hadley School for the Blind offers braille courses for parents and family of blind or low vision children.

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