How to read braille

Since it’s invention in the early 1800’s, braille has changed the lives of people with sight loss forever. If you’re new to the writing system and wondering how to read braille, there’s lots of help available including plenty of resources which teach you how to learn braille in the UK.

Unified English Braille, sometimes referred to as UEB, is used in the UK, along with most other English-speaking countries. UEB has helped to standardise braille across the world and has made communication across countries easier for people with sight loss.

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How to read in braille

Braille is read by moving your fingers over a series of raised dots on a page or surface. Each letter in the alphabet and every number is represented using a small 2x3 grid. Once you’re able to associate each pattern of dots with its letter, it becomes easy to read words and then sentences.

How do blind or visually impaired people read braille?

People with a vision impairment learn to read braille by touch. While some learn to read braille using the fingertip of one of their index fingers, for many the best way is by using the index fingertips on both hands or using multiple fingers. As your skill develops, you can learn using additional fingers from either hand.

As a tactile reading system, it requires a degree of sensitivity from your fingertips. If you feel your fingers aren’t sensitive enough to read braille, don’t worry. Many readers find their sensitivity increases quickly with practice.

Braille can be found in a variety of places, from museum signs in to medicine packaging.

How do sighted braille readers read in braille?

Sighted readers can learn how to read braille in the same way but can also try looking at the dots and understanding the different combinations. If you have someone in your life who is partially sighted or blind, being able to read braille too can quite literally help you stay on the same page.

Reading braille works almost exactly as reading any other printed language. With some basic knowledge and plenty of practice, it won’t be long until you’re able to read quickly and easily.

How to read braille letters

When you’re learning how to read in braille, imagine a grid of dots, two across and three down. By filling in the dots in a specific order, it’s possible to create each letter of the alphabet. For example, the word “dog” would be shown as:

Here the unused dots, or blanks, are left out. When reading braille on a surface, only the necessary dots are included. Spelling out each letter in this way is known as uncontracted braille, or grade 1 braille.

You can see the 2x3 grid and how, when filled in, the dots can be used to create a symbol for each letter.

However, you’re more likely to see the same word shown like this:

Once you’ve got a solid grasp of uncontracted braille, you can learn how to read contracted braille. Contracted braille - known as grade 2 braille - shortens sentences by abbreviating common lettering or words. Some examples include: and, of, for and the.

How to read braille words

Like their printed equivalent, braille words are comprised of braille letters. But in contracted braille, some commonly used words are shortened.

Words like 'for', 'will', and 'the', have contracted signs because of how often they’re used in a sentence. Similarly, letter groupings like 'ing', 'er', or 'sh', can also be contracted.

The sentence “We will go to the shop.” is shown in uncontracted braille (grade 1 braille) as:

The symbols at the start and the end of the sentence indicate a capital letter and a full stop.

In contracted braille, the same sentence is show as:

You can see that the words 'will', 'go', 'to', and the letters 'sh' in 'shop' have been contracted.

To save on space, almost all magazines and books are printed in contracted braille. If you plan on reading braille regularly, it can be useful when you learn how to read braille letters, to learn the contractions too.

Once you understand uncontracted and contracted braille, reading braille can become second nature.

How to read braille numbers

As part of the UK’s standardising of braille, UEB has adopted braille numbering in line with the Nemeth Code. First created by the blind mathematician Abraham Nemeth in 1952, the code was developed to make maths easier to read for people with sight loss.

The numbering system follows a simple formula that makes it easy to learn how to read braille numbers. First a prefix symbol indicates a number, and then the number follows.

Here you can see the number 123 (one hundred and twenty-three) including the prefix symbol that indicates you’re reading a number.

How to learn braille in the UK

If you want to learn braille in the UK, there are plenty of resources available to help. Charities such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People, offer free advice as well as resources and lessons that you can pay for.

You can purchase self-taught study guides for both sighted and non-sighted users to learn how to read braille at home. If you prefer interacting with a group, you can research classes near you to find qualified braille tutors, or find online courses if you prefer.

You’ll be able to put your newfound braille reading skills to use and enjoy books and magazines in no time.

How children can learn to read braille in the UK

Braille courses aimed at children and young people are also available. They’re fun and engaging ways to learn that are suitable for all ages. If your child is going to become fluent in braille, they will need to practice regularly, the same way a sighted child needs to practice reading.

Given enough time, practice and attention, children can pick up braille in the same amount of time it would take to learn to read.

If you have any questions about your child and braille, you can speak to a QTVI, or Qualified Teacher of Visually Impaired Children and Young People, to discuss your options.

How long does it take to learn to read braille?

Like most things, learning to read braille takes different people different lengths of time. Anything from the age of the learner to the motivation for learning can affect how quickly a person picks up braille. As a rough estimate, you can expect a course on uncontracted, or grade 1, braille to take around 10 sessions.

If you're interested in learning braille, this online Braille for Beginners course, from The Braillists Foundation, is a good place to start!

Does braille read left to right?

Braille was originally designed to mimic the alphabet, and it carried over the same basic rules. Readers who use braille move their fingers from left to right, just as sighted readers move their eyes across a page for printed English.

Frequently asked questions

Technically reviewed by: Subject Matter Experts on 02/11/2023

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