How to Read Braille: a Guide

10
 minutes

Welcome to this comprehensive guide on reading Braille for beginners. Initially, Braille can seem difficult to understand and frightening to learn. But don’t worry, many have gone before you, and with the right structure and mindset, you can learn Braille in no time. 

When reading texts because of a visual impairment is not possible anymore, Braille can be the solution.

It provides you with the possibility to read text by touch, with your fingers. Let’s first dive into who Braille is for and why you should seriously consider learning Braille!

Things you should know about reading Braille

Let’s start by removing one of the biggest misconceptions about reading Braille: most people are not able to read Braille because of finger sensitivity. In fact, only approximately 10 - 15% of people are not able to read braille because of finger sensitivity.

Mostly these are people who have worked a lot with their hands and therefore lost the sensitivity. For others, generally speaking, you are able to read Braille. It simply takes consistent practice and the right motivation.

Let’s start with motivation, why on earth would you want to learn Braille in a digital age? In a world where text-to-speech technology is readily available, you might question the importance of Braille. Yet, there are many reasons why you should reconsider and why Braille truly is a vital skill:

  1. Reading is not the same as listening: Textual information, when read, is easier to remember than text that is heard. Braille allows you to stop and reflect, something that is way more challenging with continuous audio playback. Whenever you get distracted the audio keeps on playing, whereas with Braille you would simply stop reading as you get distracted.
  2. Maintaining your literacy: People who solely rely on spoken text, tend to lose their grammar or spelling skills. At Hable, we see this happening all the time when we receive emails and texts full of grammatical errors. This can truly hurt your professional and personal communication. Besides grammar, you will miss a lot of structure in texts. Think of headings, cursive or bold text, and capitals. This information is often vital to understanding the text properly. 
  3. Listening is not always possible: Imagine sitting in busy public spaces. In these situations wouldn’t you much rather be able to rely on your Braille reading skills? 
  4. Reading with Braille allows your imagination to run: Most Braille readers prefer reading in Braille over audio. It allows you to read with the voice in your head, not the voice from the audio player. What is better than reading a book outside in the sun whilst hearing the sound of birds chirping?
  5. Reducing visual strain: Yes, even when you have rest vision, it can be difficult to read for a longer period of time. Headaches, fatigue, or neck pains are common for people with visual impairment who read for longer periods of time. With Braille, you can go for hours without it becoming a strain.

Now we’ve got the reason out of the way, how big of an investment is it to learn Braille? The short answer: it’s difficult to say. It differs incredibly per person. It is completely new for someone to start reading with their fingers instead of vision or hearing.

We have seen people learn reading Braille at a decent pace in a few weeks, to people taking upwards of 2 years. In fact, this doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you are consistent, that you have support from people around you, and that you start using it in your daily life as quickly as possible. 

We will dive into this more in the additional tips section, but first, we need to understand how Braille works. More importantly, investigate the (actually really logical) structure Braille has. 

Braille Alphabet

In fact, Braille is not so much an Alphabet or a language as it is a code. Whereas languages have developed organically over time and continuously evolved, Braille is based on a system developed by Louis Braille in 1824. Contrary to what you might think, this has many advantages.

Because of this, Braille is based on logic and is truly systematic, this helps with the speed of learning Braille. If you want to dive deeper into the Alphabet we wrote an extensive blog about this. 

Surprisingly, Braille also has some intuitive features when it comes to reading Braille numbers and punctuations, we will dive into this in the next section. So how does Braille really work?

Braille Alphabet

How to read Braille: different methods

  1. Learning the alphabet letter of Braille

Braille consists of 6 dots (or 8, but we get to this later) that are aligned in 2 vertical rows of 3 dots. The dot on the top left is dot 1, below this is dot 2, below this is dot 3 and the other column contains dots 4,5 and 6. Based on which dots are raised, the cell describes a letter, number, or punctuation. 

For example, if only dot 1 is raised, we have the letter ‘a’. When dots 1 and 2 are raised, we have the letter ‘b’. Now this is where the logic kicks in. The first 10 letters (a to j) are the same as the next 10 letters (k to t), but for the next 10 letters, dot 3 is also raised.

Then ‘u’ to ‘z’ follows the same logic as ‘a’ to ‘e’ but with dots 3 and 6 raised. Apart from the ‘w’, at the time the Braille code was developed, the ‘w’ didn’t exist in French, this is why it does not follow the logic. 

Essentially this logic means that you only have to learn the letter ‘a’ to ‘j’ and you already know the entire alphabet. 

Now this logic is great and it’s something you can always fall back on, but it’s not always recommended to learn Braille in the order of the alphabet. Instead, most Braille learning methods recommend you to learn Braille based on shapes.

For example, you can start by learning the a,b,k, and l. Where the ‘a’ is a single dot, the ‘b’, is half a line, the ‘l’ is a full line, and the ‘k’ is an open line. Learning Braille based on shapes tends to be easier when it comes to distinguishing the different shapes based on touch.

  1. Understanding punctuation & symbols

Now, how does reading in Braille work when it comes to numbers, symbols, and punctuation? Again, the systematic approach of Braille will help us here.

  • Numbers. Numbers are similar to the first 10 letters of the alphabet but with the Braille number sign in front of them. This number sign is dots 3,4,5 and 6 raised. When this sign is written before the ‘a’, it means the number ‘1’. The ‘b’ turns into the ‘2’, you get the idea. A number sign then breaks whenever a space is written. 
  • Capitals. This works similarly for capital letters, now the capital sign is written before the capital letter. The capital sign in Braille is dot 6.
  • Punctuations and symbols. The first 10 letters of the Braille code are again used here. To get the most common punctuation marks, simply drop the first 10 letters to the lower part of the cell. For example, the ‘a’ (dot 1) gets dropped down by one and becomes just dot 2. Dot 2 gives you the comma. If you drop the ‘b’ (dots 1 and 2), it becomes dots 2 and 3 which stands for the semicolon. 

For the full table of Braille letters, numbers, and punctuations, click here.

Braille punctuation
  1. Recognizing contractions and short-form words

We hope you have been able to follow so far. Let’s go up one level and look at contractions and short-form words. 

To speed up the pace of reading and writing Braille, contracts have been developed. Essentially what this means is that you need fewer letters to write a single word. For some of the most common words like ‘for’, ‘and’ and ‘the’ there is a single cell contraction:

  • Dots 1,2,3,4,5 and 6 raised means ‘for’.
  • Dots 1,2,3,4 and 6 raised means ‘and’.
  • Dots 2,3,4 and 6 raised mean ‘the’.

But there are also letters that describe a whole word when shown alone. For example:

  • The letter ‘b’ (dots 1 and 2) when standing along means: ‘but’.
  • The letter ‘c’ (dots 1 and 4) when standing alone means: ‘can’.
  • The letter ‘z’ (dots 1,3,5 and 6) when standing alone means: ‘as’.

Next to this you also have many short-form words, for example, combining the writing ‘bc’ in Braille stands for ‘because’, ‘ab’ stands for ‘about’, and ‘yrvs’ stands for ‘yourselves’. Besides these full words, there are also initial-letter contracts and final-letter contractions.

These are groups that can be used in words to shorten them. In total, you have the following types of contractions:

  • Alphabetic wordsings, like dots 1,2 (‘b’)’ for ‘but’.
  • Strong groupsigns, like dots 1,2,4 and 6 for ‘ed’ at the end of a word.
  • Strong contractions, like dots 1,2,3,4 and 6 for ‘and’.
  • Strong wordsigns, like dots 1 and 6 for ‘child’.
  • Lower groupsigns, like dots 2,3,5 and 6 (lower g) for ‘gg’.
  • Lower wordsigns, like dots 2,3 and 6 for ‘his’.
  • Initial-letter contractions, like dot 5, followed by dots 1 and 3 for ‘know’.
  • Final-letter groupsigns, like dots 4 and 6, followed by dots 2,3,4 and 5 for ‘ount’
  • Short-form words, like ‘afn’ for ‘afternoon’.

For a full overview of the different contractions, we advise you to use this cheat sheet.

Additional tips

  1. Learn Together and Make It Useful From Minute One

Embarking on the journey of learning Braille can be more engaging and less daunting when you’re not alone. Consider joining a study group or finding a learning partner. This not only provides moral support but also enables you to share tips and tricks, making the process more dynamic and interactive.

From day one, try to apply what you're learning in practical situations. This could be as simple as labeling household items with Braille tags or attempting to read small Braille texts. Immediate application of your skills reinforces learning and demonstrates the practical utility of Braille in everyday life. 

  1.  Consistency Over Intensity

Consistency is key in learning any new skill, and Braille is no exception. It’s better to dedicate a smaller amount of time each day to practice rather than attempting long, intensive study sessions irregularly.

This consistent approach helps in gradual, steady progress and avoids the feeling of being overwhelmed. Set aside a fixed time daily for Braille practice. This could involve reading Braille texts, writing in Braille, or even just familiarizing yourself with different Braille patterns.

  1.  Get Started and Judge Later If Braille Is for You

It’s important to give Braille a fair chance before deciding whether it’s suitable for you. Initially, it might seem challenging, but don’t rush to judgment. Allow yourself time to get familiar with the tactile reading process. As you progress, you will have a better understanding of how Braille fits into your life and whether it meets your needs.

Remember, learning Braille is not just about literacy; it’s also about independence, confidence, and opening up new avenues for communication and learning. In the end, you might learn Braille is not for you, and this is completely fine. At least, now you know for sure! 

In conclusion, learning Braille is a journey that requires patience, practice, and a positive approach. By learning together, maintaining consistency, and giving yourself time to adapt to this new skill, you can make Braille a valuable part of your life.

Remember, every expert was once a beginner, and with the right mindset, you can master Braille too.

Braille resources

Now, before we send you on your journey of learning Braille, here are some of our favourite resources that make the process easier and more fun!

  • The Braillist Foundation: An amazing group of people from the UK, that we love working with. They have developed courses and support groups that help you with learning Braille from 0. Specifically, the “Braille for beginners” course is extremely useful.
  • Use lower-cost Braille typing devices like the Hable One. Hundreds of people have gone before you with learning Braille by using the Hable One. It’s the perfect way to make Braille useful from the start, in our experience you type faster than before in a matter of days. 
  • There are many local organizations that can help you with learning to work with Braille. Think of Lighthouses for the Blind in the US, CNIB in Canada, or the RNIB in the UK. Not sure which local organization can help you? We have a huge database where we can link you to the right person, simply send us an email: support@iamhable.com 
a man reading in Braille in public

FAQ

Do you need both hands to read Braille

When you are able to use both hands, this is the preferred method for reading Braille. The reason is that it helps you with orientation and making sure you are on the correct line.

When you are halfway through the sentence, one of your hands will go back to the start of the sentence, whilst your other hand keeps on reading the sentence. This way you can orient yourself when starting to read the next sentence. For computer Braille, this is not important as there is only one line. 

However, it is possible to read Braille with just one hand. It merely requires some additional practice. 

Can I teach myself Braille?

Yes, it is possible to teach yourself Braille. There are various resources available, including online tutorials, Braille books, and instructional materials that can facilitate self-learning. But do consider the points we have mentioned above, try to build your support team, and take it step by step.

How long does it typically take to learn Braille?

The time it takes to learn Braille varies greatly among individuals. Some may learn the basics in a few weeks, while others might take several months to years, depending on factors like consistency of practice and prior experience with tactile learning. It also depends on what your learning goals are, if you want to be able to just read labels or if you want use Braille for your work.

Do you read Braille from left to right?

Yes, Braille is typically read from left to right, similar to the reading direction of English and many other languages.

What is the difference between braille 6-dot and 8-dot?

Standard 6-dot Braille consists of six dots arranged in two vertical columns, allowing 64 possible combinations. The 8-dot Braille expands this by adding two extra dots below the existing six, providing more combinations for additional characters and symbols. 

8-dot Braille is also referred to as computer Braille and is mainly used for devices like Braille displays. 8-dot Braille allows more efficient ways to read Braille. In 6-dot Braille you need a capital sign, in 8-dot Braille you just add dot 8 to the letter. 

Why isn’t Braille just raised letters?

Braille is not just raised letters because it is designed to be efficiently tactile, allowing for faster reading by touch. Raised letters, mimicking standard print, would be larger and more complex, making tactile reading slower and less practical. Braille’s system of dots is more compact and easier to distinguish by touch. 

We hope that with this guide, you now know how to learn Braille, How to read Braille letters, numbers, and even punctuations. The next step is for you to get started.

On this blog page, there are more resources that can help you get started. If you are still not sure if learning Braille is for you or how to start, reach out to us at support@iamhable.com . We are here to be your cheerleader and help when you need it! You’ve gotten this far already, there is no reason you won’t be able to do this. Good luck, you’ve got this. 

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Freek van Welsenis
CEO | Co-Founder

Hable comes from a personal inspiration. With siblings with a disability and my parents working in this space, this is my area of interest. I have a huge passion for applying tech so people with disabilities can participate.

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