Some Important Points About Braille Literacy and Braille Production

by Sylvie Kashdan

MS Word .doc version (82 kb)

Literacy is fundamental to our current social and economic order. It is particularly important to people with visual impairments for achieving access, inclusion and equity. Their full integration is dependent on developing basic functional literacy. In order to participate as independent adults, people with visual limitations must acquire specialized skills to perform the literacy tasks that they need to live, learn, and work on the job and at home on a daily basis.

In “A Descriptive Study of Standards and Criteria for Competence in Braille Literacy Within Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States & Canada” (Sheila Steiner Amato, Ed.D.), presented at the Fifth Biennial Getting in Touch With Literacy Conference, November 9, 2001 (Philadelphia, PA)
noted that basic definitions of literacy include reading, writing, math, computer skills, and culture.

In the same study it was noted that literacy is: “An issue of national concern” and “Necessary to function on the job and in society” (National Institute for Literacy, 1993), as well as “The means to a limitless array of activities and encounters” (Schroeder, 1989) and “The means to a better quality of life” (National Institute for Literacy, 1993).

For people who cannot read or cannot easily read any size or font of print due to visual impairment, braille is the only literacy tool that is truly equivalent to print. It is the only medium that can be produced and accessed without any assistance from others (even when faced with equipment malfunctions). It is the most effective medium for blind and visually-impaired people for independently making notes, writing telephone numbers, shopping lists, color-coding and later identifying clothing, labeling and later identifying containers of food, medicines, cleaning materials and personal care items, appliance control settings, labeling, identifying and reading personal records, books, CDs, tapes, and so forth. Those who use braille can independently accomplish many daily living tasks without requiring assistance from sighted people. They can be as independent in these activities as their fully-sighted adult peers.

Amato (2001) points out that braille literacy can: “Enable individuals who are blind to read and write for themselves.” Other participants in the conference elaborated on this important theme by describing how braille literacy makes it possible for “a person who is blind to participate equally in society” (Nemeth, 1988) “in the cultural and political life of the community” (Stephens, 1989), “Open the way to information by tearing down barriers of myth and ignorance” (Schroeder, 1989), and “Determine the degree of independent functioning on the job” (Johnson, 1989).

As noted in Foundations of Braille Literacy by Evelyn J. Rex, Alan J. Koenig, Diane P. Wormsley and Robert L. Baker (New York, AFB Press, 1994, Page 10) “Basic literacy, sometimes called academic literacy, is the kind of reading and writing that occurs in school: reading textbooks and literature, writing essays, taking tests, and taking notes from an encyclopedia or a chalkboard.” The authors are clear about the importance of having braille as the main literacy medium of students who are blind or visually impaired to the degree that reading any size or font of print is laborious. They note that students need intensive and high-quality instruction in literacy by a professional who is knowledgeable both about braille and about teaching reading and writing in braille to attain an adequate level of basic literacy skills.

They remind us that establishing basic literacy skills for fully-sighted students is a major focus of the early curriculum in primary school, and regular classroom teachers of young children devote a substantial portion of the school day to it. Typically, direct instruction in print reading, writing, spelling, and English (the “language arts”) takes 1 to 2 hours each day, and in the broadest sense the entire school day involves literacy instruction.” Certainly, the time devoted to direct instruction in teaching the language arts through braille reading and writing should be as substantial, so that the visually-impaired and blind students can fully learn the language arts and the rest of the curriculum through this medium.

While the authors are referring primarily to the needs of children, in our experience it is also important for adults who are blind or visually-impaired to have a thorough grounding in braille literacy in order to be able to use it as their primary literacy tool when appropriate.

Since blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees who come from other countries may have not had opportunities to learn how to read and write for the multitude of incidental tasks that sighted people do, care must be taken to encourage such activities to promote emergent literacy. Thus, they should be given braille letters, articles and books, and encouraged to experiment writing with braillewriters and slates and styli, just as previously illiterate adult new English learners with full vision are encouraged to experiment with pencils and pens.

The blind and visually-impaired new braille users should be encouraged to label cans and bottles, cassettes and CDs, make lists, write drafts of letters and notes to friends and other family members, or engage in other literacy activities.

Many people think that cassette recorders and computers with synthesized voice technology make it unnecessary for blind and visually-impaired people to read or write braille. However, often braille is an important part of the process of learning computer and other technology, and later in learning upgrades as they come out.

Moreover, obtaining information and learning by listening to a recorded tape or listening to a computer with synthesized speech is not an automatic process. It takes a lot of practice in continuous concentration and remembering, as well as learning how to avoid or cope with dozing during periods of study.

In addition, listening to tape recordings or synthesized speech produced by a computer does not give general literacy skills of reading, writing and spelling. Recorded material does not usually contain information about spelling, punctuation or sentence and paragraph structure. When recordings contain such information they tend to be tedious and somewhat cumbersome to read because this basic literacy information interferes with concentration on more complex meanings. Reading material oneself is a much more efficient method for developing the skill to do accurate and precise writing. Reading braille directly enables blind and visually-impaired people to become used to the forms of words and sentences, so as to more easily spot their own writing mistakes, rather than relying on others for correction.

It is important for blind and visually-impaired new English adult learners who cannot easily read and write print of any size or font to utilize braille as a basic functional literacy tool. They need to develop basic reading and writing skills using braille rather than simply relying on tape recordings and computer synthesized speech for reading and relying on dictating their words to other people or computer voice recognition programs for writing. Audio recorders and computers with voice output software are important supplemental tools. Utilizing computer keyboard typing for writing to sighted instructors, family members, friends and others who do not use braille is both necessary and desirable. But, only if a person is physically unable to develop enough tactile sensitivity and skill to read braille or enough muscular coordination to write in braille with a braillewriter or slate and stylus, should audio recordings or computers be utilized as the primary basic functional literacy tools.

In most cases the problem is not the difficulty of learning to read or write braille. The most common problem in learning to read braille is the lack of practice. When students who are capable of developing the necessary tactual skill are not given practice in learning to read braille, they will not develop enough proficiency to be able to intelligently choose when to utilize braille or when to choose audio recordings or a computer with voice output software for reading. For those who have not developed proficiency in reading braille, it will never be an acceptable choice, because it will always be judged to be too onerous, and will be avoided even when an audio recording or a computer with voice output software is not available for use.

The most common problem in learning to write braille is that when students who are capable of writing braille directly are not given the necessary practice in learning to write braille with a six-key style braillewriter keyboard or with a slate and stylus, they will not develop enough proficiency to be able to intelligently choose when to write braille directly or when to utilize audio recording or computers for writing. For those who have not developed proficiency in writing braille directly it will never be an acceptable choice, because it will always be judged to be too onerous, and will be avoided even when an audio recorder or a computer with accessible software is not available for use.

In addition, we need to remember that most blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees will not be able to afford the accessible software that can make computers fully useable, even if they or their families can afford the purchase of a computer. The software programs that read electronic text with synthesized speech can cost between $200 and $1,000. And this software is generally not provided by rehabilitation agencies to those who are new English learners or enrolled in basic education.

We should also remember that computers cannot be used to label household appliances, food or medicine containers, clothing, etc. Moreover, most blind and visually-impaired people do not use computers for writing or reading shopping lists or phone numbers of acquaintances, or for other casual use, especially when outside their homes. Some do carry and use electronic notetakers with braille or speech output (equivalent to electronic organizers used by sighted people). But, even electronic notetakers with braille or speech output are expensive–costing between $500 and $800, and are generally not provided by rehabilitation agencies to adult students who are studying ESL or basic education courses.

Computers with synthesized speech output and other accessible software are desirable as supplemental tools because they can be used by both visually-impaired and blind people and by fully-sighted people. With the appropriate accessible software and hardware, braille and print users can share texts because they can both enter and access texts which have been entered. This definitely promotes communication between braille and print users, but is a different issue than the development of each student’s basic functional literacy.

Audio tapes and computer speech output programs should be viewed as very valuable supplemental tools, but should not be the primary basic literacy modes, except when students have medical reasons that limit their ability to read braille and write on a six-key style braillewriter keyboard or with a slate and stylus. Braille reading and writing need to be encouraged for students’ direct use in order for them to develop real independent functional literacy. Only then will they be able to participate as equals along with their sighted peers in mainstream educational and other programs.

Some Tips for Those Teaching Braille Literacy

Some adults who have experienced vision loss are afraid to try to learn braille because they think that it is difficult to learn. Many fully sighted people also have this impression. But, there is no evidence to indicate that braille is any more difficult to learn than print. Moreover, people with previous print literacy can transfer a great deal of their reading and writing skills to the medium of braille with the appropriate instruction and an adequate amount of practice and daily use.

Just like those who are learning literacy using print, adult students will only develop real functional literacy using braille if they are given frequent opportunities to read and write about topics that are relevant and interesting to them. Teachers who are helping adult new English learners to learn literacy with braille need to emphasize positive creative opportunities for accomplishing desired goals. Rather than have students practice drills that are not particularly meaningful or interesting to them, teachers need to develop lessons in which they read and write along with their students, to demonstrate and model the value of literacy using braille. Visually-impaired and blind new English learners particularly need to understand the value of learning to read and write for many purposes, including for studying subjects beyond English.

Adult students also need to learn how to self-correct, rather than concentrating on reading and writing the code precisely the first time around. Teachers should not emphasize the mechanics of the braille code and error correction, until after completion of each initial reading and writing attempt. Students will be motivated to continue trying only if the learning process is not too discouraging, and only if they have a good idea of why it is worth their while, and how it can help them in the daily living and other learning tasks they want to accomplish.

Some adults with visual impairments do not want to learn literacy with braille because they are concerned that it will stigmatize them as “abnormal” and set them apart from those who do not have visual impairments. But if they understand the real functional value of learning and using braille, and have the necessary meaningful practice in using it as a literacy tool, even older adults can develop real proficiency.

Adults with visual impairments who would like to find employment should be aware that research shows that blind and visually-impaired people who are literate in braille are more likely to be employed than those who are not. Braille literacy will not get a person a job, but will make him or her more employable.

Braille For New English Learners

Although some instructors teach contracted braille to new English learners from early on, as an ESL teacher utilizing braille, I have found that those who are beginning to learn English literacy benefit greatly from starting with uncontracted braille. The braille contractions often confuse students and thereby interfere with learning English spelling, pronunciation and syllabification.

I am not the only teacher who utilizes braille who has become convinced of the importance of starting new English learners with uncontracted braille. A number of other experienced teachers concerned with adult literacy have told me that they agree that if students are able to read braille already, then they’re well-positioned to use uncontracted braille as a tool for learning English vocabulary, syntax, etc. If they’re new to reading braille, or if they never learned to read and write in any medium in their country of origin (which is not uncommon among immigrants and refugees from poor countries) there is all the more reason to stay with uncontracted braille, so that they can learn the encoding/decoding systems first, while learning meaningful content. This makes the literacy learning process less stressful and motivates them to want to continue using American English braille, and so it lays the best foundation for them to later move onto truly mastering the conventions of contracted braille in English if they want to.

A number of well-known highly respected educators have also expressed such opinions. For example, Marjorie Troughton, in her book One is Fun: Guidelines for Better Braille Literacy, 1992,
observed an increase in the literacy level of many braille users as they read uncontracted rather than contracted braille. In One Is Fun, in Chapter Seven, “Adult Literacy Programs,” Troughton asserts that, “When English is not a student’s native tongue, alphabetic braille should be used.”

Madeline Milian, in her article “Teaching Braille Reading and Writing to Students who Speak English as a Second Language,” included in the book Instructional Strategies for Braille Literacy, edited by Rose-Marie Swallow, Ed.D., with Diane P. Wormsley, Ph.D. (a workbook of specific strategies for teaching braille literacy) recommends that teachers, “Provide storybooks written in grade one braille, since ESL students may not be familiar with all the English braille contractions they need to read new words.”

In “Access to Literacy Instruction for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired: A Discussion Paper,” Canadian National Institute for the Blind, August 2002 ( P. Ann MacCuspie notes that teachers recommend reading materials in uncontracted braille for children having difficulty mastering phonic elements of the language. Adult new English learners also often have difficulty learning to distinguish the various phonic aspects of the English language, and therefore benefit from the use of uncontracted braille.

I have found that both new English learners who are just learning braille and those who have learned braille in their first language learn much faster and develop a much greater interest in actually continuing to use American English braille if they start with uncontracted braille.

Those who already know braille in their first language can sometimes be very confused by the contractions because the braille codes for other languages that use the Roman alphabet usually use special symbols for accented letters that can be easily confused with English braille contractions, so contracted English braille takes some getting used to.

For students who are literate using braille in their native languages and come from countries where the Roman alphabet is not used, the argument for beginning the learning of reading and writing in English with uncontracted braille is even stronger. This is true because the braille codes for languages that do not use the Roman alphabet use dot configurations for letters or pictographs and punctuation that are the same as those used for the Roman alphabet and contractions in American English braille. So, those students read configurations that they associate with very different print equivalents, and have to concentrate on learning the new alphabet and punctuation marks, and to ignore their similarity with the braille symbols in their first language. Although fully sighted immigrants and refugees from the same countries can see distinct differences between the symbols used in their native languages and English, the braille users must face the challenge of learning to interpret familiar dot configurations in unfamiliar ways in order to learn to read and write in English using the braille Roman alphabet. Therefore, for those who first learned braille for languages that do not use the Roman alphabet uncontracted braille also provides the least ambiguous tool for developing the skill to read and write and understand English.

All this means that when we are teaching new English learners the new language in combination with the braille contractions, we are asking them to learn much more than fully sighted new English learners are required to learn as beginners.

There are also other reasons for starting students with uncontracted braille related to the way the contractions interfere with learning spelling and pronunciation and syllabification. For example, in contracted braille the words “do” and “doing” and “does” do not all clearly show the same root. You can see it in “doing” and “does”, but not in “do.” And when we tell students that “can’t” is a contraction for “can” and “not” that is written instead of “cannot”, they do not see the same patterns in contracted braille when we write “can’t”, “can not” and “cannot”. They have to constantly try to remember just what letters each contraction stands for, and then remember how that compares with the other word.

I have worked with students who were taught both the alphabet and contracted braille early on, and who learned to be ashamed of not knowing contracted braille. Often I give them stories in uncontracted braille, and they return homework in contracted braille, including many of the mistakes that all new English learners make in writing English and many braille convention mistakes. But, this is to be expected. To get an idea of how much they can actually use contracted braille, I sometimes return their homework with comments and suggestions in both contracted and uncontracted braille, and then go over their work and my comments and suggestions with them. Nine-tenths of the time, my students can read their own work back much easier in the uncontracted form than with the contractions they used. And they can also read back and understand my comments and suggestions much more easily in uncontracted braille than in contracted braille.

The Braille Code

The following is excerpted and adapted from American Braille Basics by David Holladay and Jesse Kaysen:

The basic unit of braille is the braille cell. It is composed of six dots: the upper left dot is dot 1, the middle left dot is dot 2, the lower left dot is dot 3, the upper right dot is dot 4, the middle right dot is dot 5, and the lower right dot is dot 6. From these six dots you can get 64 possible combinations:

There are many more inkprint symbols than the 64 braille symbols. For example, most computer systems handle about 96 different inkprint symbols. Braille can show a wide number of different inkprint symbols by using one or more braille cells for each inkprint symbol.

Braille only has one set of letters. By itself, a braille letter is assumed to be in lower case. To show an uppercase letter, put the capitalization indicator (dot 6) in front of a braille letter. To show an uppercase word, you put two capitalization indicators in front of the word. The number sign (used to indicate a number) is dots 3-4-5-6. This symbol comes just before the number.

An important thing to realize about braille is that you cannot write the dot patterns smaller or larger. An 11-1/2 by 11 inch piece of braille paper contains about 900 braille cells. The size of each cell, and consequently each symbol, cause braille volumes to be much bulkier than the same material in inkprint.

To reduce the amount of paper required for braille writing there is a system of braille contractions, or abbreviations. A braille contraction is a combination of one or more cells used to shorten the length of a word. For example, to write the word mother, you would use a two-cell contraction rather than spelling out the word mother.

Some Things that Non-Braille Users Should be Aware Of

People who do not use braille should be aware that braille has somewhat different formatting and layout conventions than print concerning: headings, sentences, paragraphs, notes, lists, preliminary pages, displayed material, attributions, blocked paragraphs, etc. that make them easier for tactile readers to identify and find on a page. So, it would be a mistake to simply try to make a braille document look just like a print document.

When material is underlined or emphasized in print, the corresponding braille has no underline or change in font, but rather uses italics marks before the words being emphasized. Moreover, not all uses of inkprint emphasis are used in braille. Emphasis marks are not usually used to call attention to text, except when it is necessary to preserve the distinctions shown in inkprint.

People who learn to use computer braille translation software, but aren’t literate in braille, often mistakenly think that the software will produce good quality braille. They don’t realize that they are very often producing material that is garbled and difficult to read. Often headings are difficult to distinguish from the rest of the text, the braille text that corresponds to the print text they are supposed to be following is difficult to find, etc.

Some simple things that go wrong when print is automatically translated into braille include:

* incorrect use of dashes, double dashes, long dashes and other styles of dashes;
* incorrect use of apostrophe vs. hyphen;
* use of underline symbol (which doesn’t look at all or function like a line in braille)
* fancy (so-called “curly”) apostrophe translated into braille inner quote and a letter sign put before the letter s or t, etc. that follows the apostrophe
* double number sign when the # symbol is used in print
* inappropriate use of computer braille code
* use of the symbol for the quotation mark as a substitute for the character for the braille inch symbol
* tables that are produced in garbled form, because of attempts to make them look good visually and correspond to the layout of the print tables, because braille characters and words take up more room on a page than the corresponding characters and words in print, etc. (For example, braille versions of tables should not be forced into the same formatting as the print tables.

The table format is especially difficult for braille readers because they cannot experience the entire layout of the tables at one time as do those using vision, and they may have difficulty and require significantly more time to figure out how the columns and rows line up and relate to each other, as they explore the table layout a little at a time with their fingers and the palms of their hands.

For another description of the difficulty that braille readers have with the table format, see: Conference: Electronic books and Portfolios for School Integration Young Visual Handicapped people; Paris, Friday May 3, 2002; Adapting and Providing School Books for Integrated Education of the Visually Impaired. Antonio Quatraro, Counselor for the integration of the blind, Italian Library of the Blind (Monza):

“Sight is the sense of wide extension, the sense of global access to information, the sense of vast quantity of data.

“Touch, on the opposite, is the sense of small extension, it gives us the perception of a given object, but it requires a long and patient mental work, much like mosaic building, to gain the notion of wholeness. Touch prefers schematic and easily predictable reading paths.”

One customary and usable format for adapting tables for those using screen readers, braille, CCTVs, screen magnification software and large print involves grouping each table row in consecutive paragraphs, with line spaces between each group of paragraphs representing a new row. In this format, the information in the table column at the far left becomes the top paragraph in the group representing a row, followed by paragraphs under it for each additional column in the row. It is also helpful to repeat column headings at the beginning of each sub-paragraph in the grouping, especially if there are more than two or three columns presented at a time in the table. This makes it easier for the reader to understand the material being presented without having to remember or constantly go back to read the column headings.

Another customary and usable format especially helpful for adapting tables for braille and screen reader users involves putting each row in paragraph form with a colon after the first column, followed by a space, then a semicolon and space after each additional column. The first paragraph of the reformatted table should start with a note indicating how many columns are in the table. It should then go on to indicate that the column headings are listed in the following order, and the list of column headings should then be written in the same format as the rest of the transformed table. It may also be helpful to repeat column headings within each paragraph if there are more than two or three columns presented at a time in the table. This makes it easier for the braille reader to understand the material being presented without having to remember or constantly go back to read the column headings.

Why You Shouldn’t Rely On The Automatic Feature Of Braille Translation Software

All too many educators believe that computer programs for braille translation will solve all of their problems without them having to learn braille. One school system actually canceled their braille book orders when they bought a scanner. Teachers were instructed to bring their books to the library on Tuesday, scan them so they could have the braille the next day. The bureaucrat in question didn’t even know that one had to OPEN the book and scan each page. He thought the scanner worked like a CAT scan with the scanner making one pass of the closed book. And then the text was imported, translated, and embossed.

Not knowing how to produce error-free, well formatted braille impacts on the quality of braille used by all tactile readers. All readers, and especially new braille readers need to be exposed to good quality text in order to become accustomed to standard ways of reading and writing.

If you are providing braille for a tactile reader and want to do the print-to-braille conversion correctly, you need to be careful and not rely on the automatic features of the braille translation program. Even when you know braille, avoiding errors is complicated and takes a considerable amount of time and care.

The process of translating hardcopy print into braille

1. Scan each page, being careful to have the page as straight as possible on the scanner and in full contact with the glass of the scanner as much as possible
2. Clean up the electronic file
3. Save to Microsoft Word or another reliable word processor, clean up resulting file
4. Eliminate number signs, underlines, bullets, etc.
5. Import to your braille translation program, proofread and where necessary format by inserting codes for styles, alignment, character, paragraph and other such attributes.
6. Translate into braille and proofread in the braille document using the screen or a braille display
7. Fix errors/edit and emboss the final version in braille
8. Proofread again

When translating documents you have created yourself in Microsoft Word or another word processor the process is basically the same, minus the scanning. But, it is very important to use your word processor in ways that conform to standard format and style usage. For example:

* Do not use spacing to center headings because the braille translation program will not recognize this as centering, no matter what it looks like on the print page.
* Do not place spaces between letters in words to set the words or headings off because this does not translate into text that is set off, just into something that needs figuring out.
* Do not use boxes or columns or tables because they will not translate well.

Some Useful References

Braille Usage: Perspectives of Legally Blind Adults and Policy Implications for School Administrators by Frederic K. Schroeder. The complete book may be downloaded both unzipped and zipped in the FTP Internet Service as well as in the separate parts listed on the page:

101 Ways to Use Braille

Braille Reading Skills: Literacy And Employment by Ruby Ryles, Ph.D., Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, Louisiana Tech University, (101 South Trenton, Ruston, Louisiana 71270, USA, available from: Proceedings from the International Symposium on Braille In The Age Of Digitisation held in Denmark, April 16-19, 2002:

The World Under My Fingers
The National Federation of the Blind

Kashdan, S. (2004). Some Important Points About Braille Literacy and Braille Production. Workshop document, Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations; Seattle, U.S.A.

Copyright © 2004/2018 Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations