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How to Read Braille: A General Guide

Like learning any form of communication, learning braille takes time. However, your dedication and practice will be rewarded, as you can communicate more easily and enhance your quality of life. 

Today, braille can be combined with low-vision technology or text to make communication easier for people with low vision. Becoming proficient at braille can open you up to more avenues of communication.

What Is Braille?

Braille is a system of written language for visually impaired individuals. It uses raised dots that can be read with the fingertips. 

Braille is often a primary means of communication for people who are blind or have low vision. It is not a language. Rather, it’s a code by which languages (such as English, French, Spanish, or any other language) can be read and written.

Braille is written in the form of uncontracted or contracted braille. Uncontracted braille is made up of six dots that make up two columns of three dots each. 

The 64 possible combinations of these six dots represent alphabetical letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and words. 

Contracted braille is a shorthand form of braille. Therefore, it uses abbreviations and symbols to create letters, words, or phrases.

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How Do You Read Braille?

To decipher and read braille, you must first learn how to identify the different dot combinations that make up each character. 

Once you learn the character, you can read them by moving your finger along each line of text (from left to right). This is known as finger reading. Index fingers are normally used to read the bumps, but other fingers may be used as well.

Both hands are usually involved in reading braille. An average reading speed is around 125 words per minute. However, some people may read as fast as 200 words per minute. 

The braille alphabet allows people with low vision to review and study the written word. They can also use this raised form of writing to learn writing conventions, such as paragraphs, punctuation, spelling, and footnotes. 

Over time, inventors have attempted to use raised versions of printed letters to help the blind read, the braille system has been more successful. This may be because it is built as a sequence of signs made for the fingertips versus an imitation of letters related to sight.

The History of Braille

The history of the braille code goes back to the early 19th century. At that time, Charles Barbier, who served in the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte, developed a night-writing system.

However, this system of communication was not meant for blind readers. It was a safe form of communication for reading text in the dark. Barbier observed that soldiers had been killed using lamps to read messages, so he invented night-writing to protect the army.

The night-writing system featured a 12-dot cell that was two dots across and six dots in length. Each dot or dot combination within a cell supported a letter or phonetic sound. The only drawback to the military code was that users could not feel all the dots with a single touch.

Louis Braille’s Contribution

In 1809, Louis Braille was born in France. He lost his sight as a young child when he injured his eye with his father’s awl. 

When he was 11 years old, Braille was inspired to modify the night-writing code established by Charles Barbier to create a communication system for the blind. He developed and refined the raised dots system over the following nine years. This became the basis for what we know as braille today.

What Are Braille Cells?

The braille letter and number code is based on cells using a total of six dots, making it possible for you to use your fingertip to read a whole cell at once and move quickly from one cell to the next. 

Symbols for braille are created within the braille cells, or units of space. Again, a total braille cell is made up of six raised dots. These are set in two parallel rows, each of which feature three dots. Therefore, one cell may represent a letter, a punctuation mark, a number, or an entire word.

What Are Braille Letters?

Braille’s tactical and embossed letters are based on six dots in each braille cell. These dots make up a vertical line that has three dots and a horizontal line that consists of two dots. This combination produces all types of characters that are given different meanings.

For example, reading two dots at the top of the oblong make up the letter C, and the upper and lower dots to the left represent K. When you add an upper dot to “K,” it changes it to an “M.” 

What Are Braille Numbers?

Dot positions for numbers are made up of numbers that go from one to six. From this system, you can make 64 combinations of numbers to read.

Uncontracted & Contracted Braille

When each letter of a word is written in braille, it has not been shortened, so it is known as uncontracted braille. However, the regular system that is used for reproducing text is known as a contracted braille code. This system of cells is preferred, as it uses less paper and space, and is therefore easier to read and more economical.

For example, an uncontracted braille phrase, “You like him,” requires 12 cells. However, if you use contracted braille to write the phrase, you only need to use six cells. That is because the letters, “Y” and “l” are used for the whole words of “you” and “like” in that order. Also, the word “him” is made by combining the letters “h” and “m” together.

Braille forms 180 different letter contractions as well as 75 short-form words, such as “him” for abbreviation purposes. 

Contracted braille is the standard type of braille used in the U.S. It is displayed in general content and on public signs. 

How Is Braille Written or Produced?

Just like printed materials for sighted readers, braille may be printed or written in one of various ways. 

The equivalent of a paper and pencil for a braille reader is a slate and stylus. When paper is placed in the slate, the user of braille produces tactile dots by pushing the point of the stylus into the paper over depressions. The paper bulges on the other side and forms dots.

This type of braille writing is used to write quick notes or for quick labeling.

A braille writer may also be used to produce braille printing. This device features six keys with a line spacer, backspace, and space bar. The six main keys are numbered to match with the six dots making up a cell in braille. Most braille symbols have more than one dot, so many keys can be depressed at the same time.

Technological Devices

Technical improvements in the form of software and portable electronic braille notetakers enable users to save and edit writing or have it shown back either tactually or verbally. You can also create a hard copy by using a computer-driven braille printer on your desktop.

Braille Resources: Where to Learn Braille for Reading, Transcribing & Teaching

You can go online and find several resources where you can familiarize yourself with braille. The list below highlights some useful resources.

Braille Transcription

The National Federation for the Blind administers a braille transcribing course for the Library of Congress. Students receive certification as a braille transcriber. 

The class gives certificate holders the ability to transcribe printed material into braille. A braille writer or compatible software is required. The training is free.

Braille Education for Teachers

A self-paced braille training program is offered for teachers and educational professionals in braille training through United English Braille (UEB) online.  You must complete each course with 100 percent accuracy before continuing with the program. Both literacy and math, converting English and numbers to braille, are featured.  

Distance Education for Educators & the Public

People with visual impairments as sighted professionals may receive free distance education in braille through Hadley. The online educator can personalize a curriculum for you. 

You can learn by sight or touch online. You can also learn by touch via auditory lessons delivered to your home.

The Bottom Line

Braille can help blind and low-vision people as well as their family members and loved ones. This form of communication is not much different than when it was created by Louis Braille in 1824. Therefore, it has stood the test of time, making it a reliable form of communication for anyone who is blind or has experienced vision loss. 

Whether you work as a teacher, transcriber, or other professional, or you need to learn braille to read or communicate, you will find that this basic code gives users more opportunities for communicating.


  1. Reading With Your Fingers. (May 2019). Scientific American.

  2. Braille, the Magic Wand of the Blind, by Helen Keller. (2023) American Federation for the Blind.

  3. What Is Braille? (2023). American Federation for the Blind.

  4. Electronic Notetakers (Braille). (2023). American Federation for the Blind.

  5. The Story of Louis Braille: Inventor of the Braille Code. (February 2021). Imperial County Office of Education.

  6. Tracing the Effectiveness of Braille Reading Patterns in Individuals With Blindness: Handedness and Error Analysis. (December 2019). British Journal of Visual Impairment.

  7. The Association Between Braille Reading History and Well-being for Blind Adults. (2018). Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research.

Last Updated March 15, 2023

Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.

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