Literacy Instruction in Braille

Author: Elmwood Visual Resource Centre, Christchurch, New Zealand

...Braille: Deciphering the Code...
Every character in the braille code is based on an arrangement of one to six raised dots. Each dot has a numbered position in the braille cell. These characters make up the letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks, numbers, and everything else you can do in print. 

The Braille Cell 

braille cell

The letter "A" is written with only 1 dot.

one dot braille

The letter "D" has dots 1, 4, and 5.

three dots

The letter "Y" has dots 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

A "Period" is written with dots 2, 5, and 6. (Do you see how it is the same shape as the letter "D," only lower down in the cell?)

period dot

When all six dots are used, the character is called a "full cell"

full cell

The picture below shows you how the dots are arranged in the braille cell for each letter of the alphabet. See if you can find the letters in your name and tell the dot numbers for each one. 

braille alphabet

Braille does not have a separate alphabet of capital letters as there is in print. Capital letters are indicated by placing a dot 6 in front of the letter to be capitalized. Two capital signs mean the whole word is capitalized. capitalized braille

Braille Numbers

Braille numbers are made using the first ten letters of the alphabet, "a" through "j", and a special number sign, dots 3, 4, 5, and 6. 

Expanding the Code

Now that you understand how dots are arranged in the braille cell to make the letters of the alphabet and numbers, you're ready to learn more about the code. Braille uses special characters called contractions to make words shorter. We use contractions like "don't" as a short way of writing two words, such as "do" and "not." In braille there are many additional contractions, 189 in all! Using these contractions saves space, which is very important because braille books are much larger and longer than print books. 

braille contradictions

In addition to contractions, the braille code includes short-form words which are abbreviated spellings of common longer words. For example, "tomorrow" is spelled "tm", "friend" is spelled "fr", and "little" is spelled "ll" in braille.

You might think that because short-form words are so easy to spell that children who write braille get a break on their spelling tests. Actually, braille readers also learn regular spelling for typing on a computer. Let's see what kind of difference contractions make in braille. Look at the same phrase, you like him, in uncontracted braille (sometimes called "grade 1 braille") and contracted braille (sometimes called "grade 2 braille"). What do you notice about the length of the two phrases?

uncontracted braille versus contracted braille

Other Braille Codes

The braille code used for writing regular text in books, magazines, school reports, and letters is known as "literary braille." There are other codes, though, that let people who are blind write just about anything, from math problems to music notes to computer notation! One More Comment About Braille People sometimes ask if it would be easier to use raised print alphabet letters, rather than dots. When you read about Louis Braille, you'll learn that raised print letters were tried in the early 1800s before he invented braille. However, these letters were very difficult to read by touch, and writing them was even more of a problem.

If you ever see an experienced reader's fingers gliding across a page of braille at 100-200 words per minute, you will appreciate the genius of the simple six-dot system. Braille can be read and written with ease by both children and adults. It is truly an invention that is here to stay. 

Classroom Activities

1. Happy Birthday, Louis!
Have a celebration in honour of the inventor of braille on January 4. Decorate cookies, cupcakes, or a cake with braille letters made of M&Ms, gum drops, red-hots, chocolate chips, or other candy. Decorate with a braille banner or posters, and balloons arranged to form braille letters. And, of course, play braille games!

2. Follow the Trail of Braille
Write a simple message in braille, and cut between the words. Mount each word on a sheet of collared paper and post them randomly throughout the room, or around the school (e.g., above the water fountain, on the office door, etc.). The first student to figure out the message wins. You can do one each week, gradually increasing the complexity and length of the message.

3. Play Braille-O Lotto
Duplicate a lotto sheet containing 5 rows of 5 squares for each student. Players print the letters of the alphabet in random order in the empty squares. Round pieces of cereal can be used for markers (or other game pieces can be used). The game can be played with varying levels of difficulty: 

  • The teacher writes a braille letter on the chalkboard. Children consult the braille alphabet key, and place a marker on the correct print letter on their lotto page. First child to have five in a row (down, across, or diagonally) calls, "Braille-O" and becomes the next game leader to write braille letters on the board.
  • The teacher calls out the dot numbers that constitute a braille letter. Children scan the braille alphabet key, identify the letter, and place a marker on their corresponding print letter. Play continues until a winner calls, "Braille-O."
  • For variety, play Braille Bingo. Students print numbers in random order: 1-15 under the B, 16-30 under I, 31-45 under N, 46-60 under G, and 61-75 under O. The caller writes a braille number on the board (don't forget the number sign!) and players locate the corresponding print number.

4. Poster Contest
Conduct a classroom—or school wide—poster contest with the theme of braille and what it means to those who use it. Award prizes for the most creative poster in each designated age group. Display posters on bulletin boards around the school. 5. "I Spy" Contest Contestants can be individuals, teams, or classrooms. The object is to find as many uses of braille in the community as possible. For younger children, the contest can begin on Monday and end on Friday; for older students, the contest can run for a month. Students receive an "I Spy Braille" scorecard with entry spaces for date, where the braille was found and what it communicated (e.g., elevator floors, ATMs at specific banks, soft drink cup lids, etc.), and a space for an adult signature. Points can be earned for the greatest number of places braille was found, as well as for unique entries.

B. Literacy Instruction for Students with Low Vision 

B-1. Base literacy instruction as often as possible in experiences. Also, use concrete objects as often as possible (McGregor & Farrenkopf, 2002).

B-2. Pair real objects with representational forms (pictures, miniatures),” then “pair real objects with symbolic forms (print, Braille)” (McGregor & Farrenkopf, 2002, p. 2).

B-3. To teach the alphabet, a multi-sensory approach should be utilized. Use real things to demonstrate initial sounds (ADE, 1996). Some examples of multi-sensory activities are as follows:

  •  Write letters in shaving cream with fingers and say the sound (Montgomery, 2005) - Write letters in trays of pudding or finger paint. The colors of the tray and pudding or paint should highly contrast (Cooper, 2000). For more ideas see Dr. Holly Cooper’s website (Cooper, 2001).
  • Make raised indentions of letters by writing letters with crayon on paper that is placed over a screen, trace the raised indention with finger and say the sound of the letter (Montgomery, 2005)

B-4. Make lines with a marker or felt-tip pen if the student has difficulty tracking and/or keeping his/her place in the text (ADE, 1996; BCC, 1993), or use an index card (Montgomery, 2005). Use “a typoscope or template” (ADE, 1996, p. 13) over a page of text in order to find and follow the next line of text (ADE, 1996; BCC, 1993). If preparing an original typoscope, consider the student’s individual needs when it comes to glare and contrast (BCC, 1993).

B-6. If the student needs to hold the page very close to see the text, permit them (ADE, 1996). A reading stand may be helpful to the student (BCC, 1993).

B-7. Choose a font with easily recognizable characters, either standard Roman or sans serif fonts. A good choice is the sans serif style, Arial.

B-8. When producing print, choose highly contrasting colors for print and background. Also, use “bold, well-spaced letters,” since “they are often easier to see” (ADE, 1996, p. 14). The American Printing House for the Blind provides more detailed guidelines for large print; refer to (Kitchel, 2004). APHont TM a research-based and developed font for people with vision impairments, is also described on the website and can be downloaded for free provided it will be used by or for students with vision impairments at (Kitchel, 2004; APH, “APHont TM Order Form”, 2004). The bold type font is difficult to read because it looks smeared and makes details difficult for some to see. More information can be obtained by referring to the article “How to make print more readable for people with visual limitations at

B-9. McGregor and Farrenkopf suggest making concept books and storybooks for students with VI. They provide a materials list and a detailed procedure for making these kinds of books at with and/or for students with VI (2002).

B-10. Consider shortening reading assignments, since students with low vision use more energy than sighted students when reading (ADE, 1996).

B-11. Some devices for students with low vision that can help improve literacy skills include: handheld magnifiers, stand magnifers, telemicroscopes, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) (Pennsylvania College of Optometry, 1997). Letter recognition activities and examination of story illustrations can be conducted using these various media (BCC, 1993).