How Braille Works

Reading and Writing Braille

A Braille book
A Braille book
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

People read Braille by moving their fingertips from left to right across the lines of dots. When writing Braille, people move from right to left instead, physically pressing the dots into the paper so that they show up on the other side. There are many methods used to write Braille, including:

  • Physically pressing each dot into paper using a handheld stylus to make the impressions and a slate to hold the paper
  • A Braille writer, which has one key for each of the six dots in a Braille cell
  • A full QWERTY keyboard attached to a Braille printer

Learning to use these tools and to read Braille is a lot like learning to read and write print. Printed letters and Braille cells are both symbols for pieces of language. The first step is to learn each of these symbols and what they mean. The next is to learn to recognize the patterns that the letters form. This eventually leads to the comprehension of words, sentences and paragraphs.

Many blind children learn to read Braille using primers much like their sighted classmates. However, many of these primers rely on pictures to help children grasp the meaning of words. Children who do not see well enough to decipher pictures don't get this additional context to help them learn. For this reason, many teachers combine basic reading primers with organized Braille literacy curricula. Several companies create these curricula, which include charts, stories and teaching tools. Some curricula are deigned specifically for children, and others are more suited for adults. Check out this reference circular from the National Library Service to learn more about them.

It's a lot faster to write in Braille than it is to create the embossed letters used in some earlier tactile writing systems. However, creating books in Braille still takes time. Until recently, translating a book from print to Braille required sighted transcribers to translate the book by hand. In some cases, this could take hundreds of hours. Improved optical character recognition (OCR) technology and computerized Braille printers have improved this process significantly. Rather than copying a book by hand, people can scan books, translate the scanned text to Braille and print an embossed copy.

Reading Braille can also be a little slower than reading print. People who are fluent in Braille can typically read at a rate of 125 to 200 words per minute [Source: American Council of the Blind]. On average, eighth graders read at a rate of 205 words per minute, and college students read at 280 words per minute [Source: University at Buffalo]. To make up for the difference in reading speeds, many people who know how to read Braille also use other methods to gain information. These include:

  • Computer programs called screen readers that read the information visible on a computer screen and play it through a speaker
  • Talking books, or audio books for the blind
  • Recordings of teachers, family members, friends or volunteers reading print material aloud

Reading speed isn't the only challenge involved in learning Braille. We'll look at others in the next section.