Most people have some association of people who are blind reading braille or perhaps have seen photographs of Helen Keller reading with her fingertips. But precisely, what is braille?

Braille is a tactile system for representing the written word that is used as an alternative to reading and writing print by people who are blind or low vision. It is not a language, but rather is a codeā€”a system for representing the alphabet and wordsā€”in a language such as English. For people who use braille, it provides a means of independent literacyā€”that is, they can read and write without assistance from anyone else. 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 is made up of 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 they are 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.”

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

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 as well, 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. The advantage of this approach is that a child will be reading and writing words from the beginning in the way he will ultimately do so. He will also have access to a wider array of materials in braille. The disadvantage to introducing contracted braille to young children is that they have to learn braille contractions in addition to the 26 letters of the alphabet. Also, because they are learning contracted forms, such as writing the word “but” as the letter “b,” they may not develop as strong decoding and spelling skills as their sighted peers.

Some TVIs will start teaching students uncontracted braille for the first few years and then gradually introduce contractions to them in early elementary school. This method allows the child to build a solid foundation in decoding and spelling before learning “short cuts” in the form of contractions. The disadvantage then 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 you and the other members of your child’s educational team so that a decision can be made that will be appropriate for your child.

Learning Braille

When children learn braille, they need to learn many of the same things that other students do when they learn to readā€”for example, how to pronounce the individual letters and how to sound out words or decode them from their context in a reading passage. However, there are additional skills to be learned, including the ability to feel the dots distinctly, to move steadily and evenly along a line of braille, and so forth. Just as beginning print readers often confuse similar letters such as “b” and “d,” braille readers may also make such errors, but the letters they reverse will be different (such as “e” and “i”). Braille readers also have more symbols to learn, and they won’t encounter all the braille contractions and symbols until they are reading at a third-grade level. Beginning braille readers need to work consistently with a TVI as well as their classroom teacher to become a fluent reader.

As a parent, all the things you do to help your child get ready for reading, such as reading frequently and pointing out the print and braille that you see, will help your child begin to learn braille. You might also want to learn some braille yourself to better understand what your child is learning. The Hadley School for the Blind offers correspondence courses in braille for parents and family members of children who are blind or low vision.