Braille: What Is It? What Does It Mean to the Blind?

Reprinted from Future Reflections

Braille is a system of reading and writing by touch used by the blind. It consists of arrangements of dots which make up letters of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation marks. The basic Braille symbol, called the Braille cell, consists of six dots arranged in the formation of a rectangle, three dots high and two across. Other symbols consist of only some of these six dots. The six dots are commonly referred to by number according to their position in the cell.

There are no different symbols for capital letters in Braille. Capitalization is accomplished by placing a dot 6 in the cell just before the letter that is capitalized. The first ten letters of the alphabet are used to make numbers. These are preceded by a number sign which is dots 3-4-5-6. Thus, 1 is number sign a; 2 is number sign b; 10 is number sign a-j and 193 is number sign a-i-c.

Some abbreviations are used in standard American Braille in order to reduce its bulk. These must be memorized, but most Braille readers and writers find them convenient, rather than a problem. Braille is written on heavy paper, and the raised dots prevent the pages from lying smoothly together as they would in a print book. Therefore, Braille books are quite bulky.

Today there are three methods of writing Braille, just as there are two methods of writing print. A Braille writing machine (comparable to a typewriter) has a keyboard of only six keys and a space bar, instead of one key for each letter of the alphabet. These keys can be pushed separately or altogether. If they are all pushed at the same time, they will cause six dots to be raised on the paper in the formation of a Braille cell. Pushing various combinations of the keys on the Braille writer produces different letters of the alphabet and other Braille symbols.

Writing Braille with a slate and stylus compares to writing print with a pen or pencil. The stylus is used to push dots down through the paper, while the slate serves as a guide. The Braille slate can be made of metal or plastic and is hinged so that there is a guide under the paper as well as on top of it. A person writing Braille with the slate and stylus begins at the right side of the paper and ends the line on the left, since the dots are being produced on the underside of the paper. Of course, the Braille reader reads from left to right, for the dots are then on the top side of the paper. Although this may seem a bit confusing, it need not be at all troublesome, since both reading and writing progress through words and sentences from beginning to end in the same manner. The speed of writing Braille with the slate and stylus is about the same as the speed of writing print with pen or pencil.

Just as the personal computer has revolutionized writing in print today, it is also possible to produce Braille more easily and quickly than ever before. Assuming that the proper equipment is available, a computer user can now send a document to a standard printer to produce a paper copy in print or to a Braille embosser to produce the document in Braille. And one need not even know Braille to create this miracle.

Braille was first developed in the late 1820’s by a young Frenchman named Louis Braille. He created Braille by modifying a system of night writing which was intended for military use. He did this work as a very young man and had it complete by the time he was about eighteen. He and his friends at the school for the blind found that reading and writing dots was much faster than reading raised print letters, which could not be written by hand at all. The development of this system by young Louis Braille is now recognized as the most important single development in making it possible for the blind to get a good education.

It took more than a century, however, before people would accept Braille as an excellent way for the blind to read and write. Even today many people underestimate the effectiveness of Braille. While tapes and records are enjoyable, Braille is essential for note-taking and helpful for studying such things as math, spelling, and foreign languages. It is a matter of great concern to members of the National Federation of the Blind that fewer blind people now have the opportunity to become good Braille users than did twenty-five years ago.

Why is this? Many professionals in work with the blind stress recorded media with blind children. Many people who become blind do so in old age and are not encouraged to spend the time and make the effort needed to develop the new reading and writing skills that depend on feeling rather than seeing. There are even Braille teachers who do not expect speed and accuracy of their blind students. As a result, the students learn Braille as a chore and a drudgery.

Experienced Braille readers, however, read Braille at speeds comparable to print readers-200 to 400 words a minute. Such Braille readers say that the only limitation of Braille is that there isn’t enough material available. They want more books produced by Braille presses, more books produced by volunteer Braillists in their homes, and wider availability of computerized Braille production.

One of the goals of the National Federation of the Blind is to help people appreciate Braille for the efficient system it is. The main difference between print and Braille is simply that print is meant to be read with the eyes, while Braille is meant to be read with the fingertips. Fingers feel dots quickly and accurately; eyes see loops and lines of ink. In both cases it is the brain that processes and reacts to the raw data sent to it by the fingers or the eyes.

Braille Reading Speed: Are You Willing To Do What It Takes?

by Susan Ford and Ramona Walhof
Reprinted from The Braille Monitor

Many Braille readers have never been encouraged to work to achieve good speed. Slow reading is a disadvantage throughout life and causes the reader to under-use and undervalue the reading skill. But there is no need to continue forever as a slow reader. Some Braille readers develop a speed of 200 to 400 words per minute as small children. They will retain that speed with little or no effort. Braille readers who could not attain good speed as young children, however, can do so with some work, and it is certainly worth the effort. It is also desirable for teachers of blind children to encourage good Braille-reading speed.

Susan Ford developed good Braille reading speed as a small child and retains it; Ramona Walhof had fair speed as a child and has had to work to improve. Our experiences in reading Braille and teaching for years have given us some ideas which may help others in achieving increased speed. Try these suggestions and talk with other good Braille readers. You should experience significant improvement.

Susan has been a rehabilitation teacher and counselor and worked with hundreds of adult Braille students. Most were learning Braille from scratch. Some were working to improve their skill. Some never completed standard Braille, but many have, and they continued to improve in speed and confidence. Susan has written drills and exercises for her students to use when they have experienced problems with certain Braille concepts.

Ramona’s teaching has been largely in training centers. She has also taught both new Braille readers and those who were working to improve speed and accuracy. Ramona co-authored Beginning Braille for Adults in order to assist students to complete Grade II (standard) Braille more quickly. We both agree that this book is good for some Braille students but not all.

  1. Avoid all Braille printed on plastic pages. Plastic is somewhat better than it was when it first appeared, but it will still discourage good speed. As you develop more speed, it will seem worse, because your hands will cling to the Braille as they move faster across the lines. Since Braille continues to become easier to produce using Braille embossers driven by computers, using plastic should not be necessary except in rare situations.
  2. Keep your touch light. You can feel the dots better if your fingers are moving lightly over the lines. To test this statement, try this: feel the back of one hand with the fingers of your other hand. Exert some pressure and rub your hand a little. You will feel bones and veins. Now barely brush your fingers across the skin. You will feel the texture of the skin and hairs. These details were hardly noticeable when you pressed down. The same is true of Braille. You do not want to know what is underneath the page, but what is on the surface. This requires a light touch. Many Braille readers are heavy-handed. Experiment honestly to see whether you are.
  3. Check the position of your hands to insure that you are using the most sensitive part of your fingertips. Your hands should be curved so that the second joints of your fingers are only a little higher than the first joints. Your wrists should move just above the page. The most sensitive part of your fingers is just below the tip, but not as far back as the fleshier part right above the first joint.
  4. You will read best if you follow the lines of Braille using three fingers on each hand. The middle and third fingers help to keep your place and increase speed, even though the forefingers are the primary reading fingers. It is always important to use both hands, even if one is less sensitive. Keep both forefingers on the line of Braille. Almost everyone has one dominant hand in reading, and it is not necessarily the same one that is dominant in other activities. It is convenient to be able to use one hand well enough to read while writing using a slate and stylus with the other. You can then copy brief passages from what you are reading without taking your hand off the page. Consider this technique for copying an address or phone number. You probably don’t have much choice about which hand works best, but you can increase the effectiveness of both hands if you work at it.
  5. When you read Braille, you want your left hand to read the beginning of the line and your right hand to read the end. The best readers bring their forefingers together somewhere in the middle of the line, letting the right hand finish while the left hand returns to the left margin to locate and begin the new line. This process increases speed because you no longer have to pause to locate the new line. Your dominant hand will read a larger part of the line, but the two hands read independently, and your brain puts the words in correct order. If you have been a one-handed reader, your first step is to make your weaker hand follow the other one until it begins to help with the work. Make the hand you are trying to strengthen read at least one word at the beginning or end of the line. As you become more adept at this, what at first seemed to slow you down will help increase your speed. When you experience success at making your slow hand read one word, begin to require it to carry more of the load. If one hand is truly disabled, you can still read Braille well enough to make it valuable. If one hand is merely less sensitive than the other, make the weaker hand work, and it will get more efficient.
  6. In some ways improving Braille-reading speed is much like improving speed reading print. We recommend that you first learn to skim. Learn to gather the sense of a passage by reading the first lines of short paragraphs and the first and last lines of slightly longer ones. If the paragraph is quite long, read a few middle lines as well.
  7. If you are reading conversation, skip or de-emphasize the “he said,” “she asked,” “I explained” phrases. Don’t try to skip these in the middle of a line, but when they appear at the beginning or end and you are not reading aloud, they are unnecessary. You will know the content, and skipping unnecessary words is another way to permit your reading speed to increase slightly. This is part of learning to skim rather than actually increasing verbatim reading speed. If you expect to cover the material faster, your hands and mind will learn to work together. All this helps your speed. Several such techniques can add up to quite an improvement. You will learn not to break the steady movement of your hands as you concentrate on what matters in what you read.
  8. Develop a sight vocabulary in Braille. This idea is especially helpful if you have just completed learning Grade II Braille and need to build confidence in your knowledge of contracted words. You can carry a packet of three-by-five index cards with frequently used words or phrases on each. The earliest ones you make should be no more than four symbols. With practice you will begin to recognize the short words immediately. You can also recognize these letter combinations as parts of longer ones. Example: the word “and” also appears in the words “strand,” “band,” and “land,” and so on. The word “honest” appears at the beginning of “honestly” and at the end of “dishonest.” As you recognize sight vocabulary words more quickly, the longer words which contain them will come more quickly as well. When a group of twenty cards or so becomes familiar, exchange them for another set. Carry them in your notebook or purse; study them on the way to work or school; and make new ones when they wear out.
  9. Set achievable goals for improvement. Determine how much you read every day. Be truthful with yourself, even if you are only reading a paragraph a day. Set as your first goal to double this amount or to increase it by 50 percent. Be absolutely faithful to your daily commitment to read Braille. When you feel comfortable reading this new amount, increase it again and make that your new goal. Be sure to read every single day. Remember, it does not hurt to read more than the minimum you have set. If one day you don’t meet your commitment to yourself, don’t worry about it. Stress causes burn-out. Just begin where you left off and continue achieving the same goal each day.
  10. Begin with very short passages. It does not take long to be able to read a selection of three or four pages in one sitting. It feels wonderful when you can say that you have read a whole story. Such success encourages other attempts. You need not read material written at your intellectual level. Many of us like to read children’s stories. You can easily find short articles from magazines.
  11. Make Braille convenient for yourself. Keep a Braille book beside your bed, and tell people you have learned to read in the dark. Leave a book or magazine near your favorite easy chair. Carry a small magazine with you. Immerse yourself in this exposure to Braille. Keep a Braille calendar in your pocket or purse. Begin an address and phone file. Make recipes in Braille. Ask your friends if they can show you what crossword puzzles look like in Braille or how to do cryptograms, etc. Try to make Braille available to yourself in the many ways that print is available to your sighted friends. The more you see it and find it wherever you put your hands, the more you will read it. Reading Braille–as much and as often as possible–is certainly the most important thing you can do to increase your reading speed. Read, read, read!
  12. One of the more effective ways to improve Braille skill is to read along with someone else. A tape recorder will do. The aural reading should be just a little faster than yours. Make yourself keep up. Reread the passage. The second time you will be familiar with the material. Your speed should increase. Keep at it till you are comfortable with the faster speed. Read something onto a tape yourself. Compete with yourself, each time trying to beat the original speed of your recording.
  13. Subscribe to at least one Braille magazine that you enjoy. Read short articles, and then reread them more than twice, trying to read faster each time. Do not memorize. As the text becomes familiar, you will read much more rapidly. Be sure to read aloud sometimes to be sure that you are not skipping when you know the material well.
  14. As you begin to see improvement in your speed, continue spending the same amount of time reading or doing even more. Reading faster will permit you to cover more material in the same amount of time. In school children read many hours a day while learning to read. As adults we expect to spend just a few minutes and accomplish as much. In the beginning at least it won’t happen. You must commit time in order to see significant improvement.
  15. Avoid bad habits. Many Braille readers have developed the bad habit of double-checking frequently in order to catch mistakes. It is important to keep your hands moving steadily forward with very little checking back. Avoid rubbing the Braille as you read it. Reading with someone who reads just a little faster keeps you from looking back. If you do, you will get behind. It is true that reading Braille requires movement, but the movement should be mostly forward, not up and down or backwards. If you move your hands up and down, you may move from one line to another without realizing it. You can read together with someone else who is working to improve his or her speed. You can even do this on the telephone. If you respond to competition, challenge someone to compete with you. Occasional timings are helpful, but only to determine if your reading speed increases. Don’t overdo it. Instead of words per minute, it might be more helpful to measure pages per hour or per week. When you have something to read in Braille, complete it in that medium. Don’t cheat and finish it on tape.
  16. Take some responsibility using Braille. For instance, make a report from Braille notes. Give a speech using Braille cards. Make a report about something you have read in Braille. NFB Kernel Books are filled with short and easy articles, which may also provide motivation for improving this skill. In this article we have not discussed writing. Whether you write with a Braille writer or with the slate and stylus, your writing skill will reinforce your reading skill. Much more could be said about writing–maybe another article some day.

We would love to tell you more about some of the wonderful students we have had. You would find their progress interesting and challenging. When you see us, don’t hesitate to ask us about them. There isn’t space or time to tell all their stories here.

Get excited about Braille. It is fun to be literate. It is normal to be able to read at your own convenience and do it with facility. Don’t deny yourself that convenience and pleasure any longer. Believe in yourself and believe in Braille. Remember that many adults have learned Braille from scratch and attained good speed. It is worth the effort, and you are not too old, too stupid, or too lazy. Try it; you’ll like it!