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From Scholastic Books to Braille

January 14, 2021

From Scholastic Books to Braille:  A Journey in Reading

By Alice Jane-Marie Massa

                During this past week, I heard that Scholastic Books marked, in 2020, the 100th anniversary of its founding in Pennsylvania.  Always fascinated by books, I, as a young reader, loved having the opportunity to purchase the paperback Scholastic Books for pleasure reading and for the onset of a lifelong collection of books–standard print, then large-print books, and finally braille books.  Despite my downsizing during last year, I still have a few of the Scholastic Books on my bookshelves.  Three of these books are about Helen Keller; the one of these print books which I purchased first is the most dear to me because in the back of the book is a pictorial representation of the braille alphabet–the place where I was first introduced to the braille alphabet. 

                In 1981, when I still had some limited usable vision, I used a hole-punch and some cards which I cut to the size of about one inch by two inches; thus, in this manner, I made flashcards for my learning the braille alphabet.  I did not create raised dots as the braille system uses, but only had holes to resemble the dots.  In this unusual way, I began to learn braille.  Since at that time, I was unaware of any rehabilitation center or even the Hadley School for the Blind to learn braille, I chose to learn all that I could about braille by taking the braille transcribing course through the Library of Congress.  While I took an unusual road to braille, I am grateful for my opportunities to learn braille and to continue to use Louis Braille’s system of reading and writing throughout my later decades.

                When I went to Western Michigan University for a master’s degree in blind rehabilitation, I received an exemption from taking the braille course because I already had earned my certificate as a braille transcriber from the Library of Congress.  (This framed certificate hangs on the wall above the desk where my Perkins brailler is.) 

                A Perkins brailler (or braille writer) has only six keys (one for each dot of the braille cell), a lever to advance the paper, a lever or key to backspace, and a space bar.  Although I first borrowed for a short while a Perkins brailler from someone, I purchased my current machine in 1982; this heavy-duty machine has traveled with me wherever I have moved.  To make the depression of the keys easier, I have an electric brailler and also have “extension keys.”  The number of pages I have brailled in the past more than four decades I cannot begin to count!  I do distinctly recall the first time my dad and I tried to insert the paper into the borrowed standard brailler.  I thought we would never insert the cardstock type of paper properly, but we finally managed to master this clever machine.

                As a volunteer and as a full-time rehabilitation instructor, I enjoyed introducing adult students to braille and teaching them braille.  Louis Braille made the teaching of his system so easy and logical because he invented, from age twelve through age sixteen, an ingenious method for his tactile alphabet which eventually spread around the world. 

To understand the basics of braille, you must know that a “braille cell” is a rectangular space in which there is room for three dots vertically and two dots horizontally.  A braille cell may consist of zero to six dots, in various patterns.  This six-dot cell configuration allows for 63 possibilities for the arrangement of dots.  Each dot has a particular number:  from top to bottom on the left side of the braille cell, the dots are numbered one, two, and three.  On the right side of the braille cell, the dots are, from top to bottom, four, five, and six. 

The foundation of his code was the first ten letters of the alphabet.  Once he had the dots set for the first ten letters (letters “a” through “j”), he added to each of these initial letters dot three for the next ten letters (“k” through “t”).  Then, in the third row of the braille alphabet, Louis braille added dots three and six to the first five letters to create the last five letters of the braille alphabet–“u” through “z,” minus the letter “w” which was not used in French during the time of Louis Braille.  Later, the letter “w” was formed by adding only dot six to the braille letter “j.”  Learning braille by this “row method” facilitates the learning of the dot configurations.

                To make a letter in upper case, Louis Braille placed a capital sign, only dot six, in the cell prior to the letter to be capitalized.

                For brailling the numerals one through nine and zero, Louis Braille used the number sign–dots, three, four, five, six–in a cell to indicate that the next cell or cells before a space or certain marks of punctuation would represent a number.  Again, he used the first row of the braille alphabet so that the number sign with the dot configuration for letter “a” is the numeral one; the number sign followed by the dot configuration for letter “b” is read as the numeral two, etc.  The number sign followed by the dots of the letter “j” represents zero.

                Of course, braille consists of much more; but below you will find a chart of the very basics of the braille code. 

The Foundation of Braille

The braille cell:

   * dot 1  * dot 4

   * dot 2  * dot 5

   * dot 3  * dot 6

ROW ONE:  a-j

A:  dot one

B:  dots one and two

C:  dots one and four

D:  dots one, four, five

E:  dots one, five

F:  dots one, two, four

G:  dots one, two, four, five

H:  dots one, two, five

I:  dots two, four

J:  dots two, four, five

ROW TWO:  k-t

Add dot three to each letter of the first row to form each letter of the second row of the braille alphabet.

  K:  dots one, three

L:  dots one, two, three

M:  dots one, three, four

N:  dots one, three, four, five

O:  one, three, five

P:  dots one, two, three, four

Q:  dots one, two, three, four, five

R:  dots one, two, three, five

S:  dots two, three, four

T:  dots two, three, four, five

ROW THREE:  u, v, x, y, z (and then the exception “w”)

To form each letter of the third row, add both dots three and six to the first five letters of the alphabet.

U:  dots one, three, six

V:  dots one, two, three, six

X:  dots one, three, four, six

Y:  dots one, three, four, five, six

Z:  dots one, three, five, six

W (the exception):  letter “j” plus dot six only or dots two, four, five, six

                Sometime in the 1980s, my dad made for me some braille teaching tools which I still have and use.  He cut each board to the measurement of four inches by six inches; then, he drilled six indentations into each rectangular board so that up to six marbles–representing the braille dots–could be placed into the round indentations.  Of course, Dad sanded each wood block, or braille cell, to a very smooth finish.  At a presentation about braille, I have also used gum drops to represent the braille dots.  At the end of the presentation, I told the audience that they could eat the braille dots!  Learning the tactile alphabet invented by the remarkable Louis Braille can be fun.

PAW NOTE:  Although my current Leader Dog, Willow, has never tried to read braille yet, I do recall that each of my first three Leader Dogs–Keller, Heather, and Zoe–would at times lie her head upon a braille book or braille magazine opened on my lap as if she were trying to read the dots–or at least trying to determine why I was touching the dots instead of petting the guide dog.

 With thanks for your interest in braille during National Braille Literacy Month,

Alice and leader Dog Willow

January 13, 2021, Wednesday


From → Uncategorized

  1. Carole permalink

    Thank you, Alice, for today’s excellent lesson about braille!

    For years when we invited John Stroot to our classroom to speak about the theme we were studying, he always concluded the day with prepared bookmarks for the students with their name in braille, which they were happily surprised to receive. I was very impressed when your nephew Eric learned braille to communicate special greetings. You were also an inspiration to a Wisconsin author in printing his beautiful book into braille for children to enjoy. Finally, your Michigan friends, who created an extraordinary recent gift that included braille, also made quite an impression of kindness and throughtfulness in your honor.

    I never took the time to learn braille, but was always fascinated with the code, so your comprehensive post today about the basics has inspired me. Maybe instead sending a Hallmark card in braille, I may one day surprise you with my own brailled message!

    Enjoy celebrating this special month!

    • Hello, Carole–Many thanks for your lovely comments and your “like” on this “Braille” post!  Atop one of my bookshelves is still the snowflake braille holiday card which you and Tim sent to me:  it is a special card which is truly appreciated. Nevertheless, a card brailled by you would be a most unexpected surprise!

          Yes, the braill bookmarks, as well as braille alphabet cards, are always much appreciated by audience members at a presentation about braille.

          You mentioned the braille edition of PEANUT OF BLIND FAITH FARM which is such a special children’s braille book because the braille edition includes a raised-line drawing of the lamb Peanut.  Surprisingly, even during the era of Louis Braille, raised-line drawings were available to young blind students in Paris, France.

      Talk with you soon!

      Take good care–Alice and Willow

  2. Susan M McKendry permalink

    Thank you for this excellent post! I know from personal experience what a wonderful braille teacher you are as you spent a lot of your own personal time helping me learn this fascinating system. How I looked forward to those sessions as well as early mornings on the porch doing my homework before the other members of my household were up and about. Because I am sighted, you permitted me to visually read the dots by rubbing the brailled paper with a soft leaded pencil which made the dots more visible. It was so exciting when I could read the stories. My favorite was the one about the guide dog’s guide dog. Unfortunately, when I transferred out of the Center for Special Needs I had to turn in the braille writer the school had let me use, and since we had recently moved to the farm I did not have the financial resources to purchase one. I was surprised to read how you learned the system yourself, which might be the reason you were such an excellent instructor.

    • Hello, Sue–Oh, My!  Your comment is just too nice!  Thank you so very much!  I do distinctly remember that summer when I had the pleasure of teaching you braille.  You were certainly an extraordinary instructor to want to learn braille and to follow through with a summertime goal of learning braille.  Our working together on braille was a wonderful time of sharing.

      Take good care–Alice and Willow

  3. Hello, Alice,
    Your excellent post reminds me of another journey that you and Leader Dog Zoe took to Colorado in October of 2011. During your visit, you spent some time in my prekindergarten classroom where you taught the children about Braille, and they listened to you read children’s books that were printed in Braille. The children were fascinated by the Braille dots that could even spell their names! Your gifts of a bookmark with their names in Braille as well as the Braille Alphabet card were greatly appreciated. They were also able to see how Zoe expertly led you around our room. The children were building with plastic building blocks during our activity time, and I asked each one of them to describe their structure to you since you could not see it. After giving you a detailed description of his downtown skyscraper structure, you asked Basal if his structure showed Denver skyscrapers. Basal sincerely asked you where you live and then said that it was where you live—it was Downtown Milwaukee. We enjoyed many special times during that visit, but the children’s interest in Braille and Basal’s comment are warm memories that still touch my heart.
    Happy Braille Reading!

    • Hi, Mary–Many thanks for adding your comments to this post!  Oh, yes, I remember Basil’s creation and his comment very well.  I think he was a budding diplomat!  How I did enjoy sharing braille with your little students!  What a treat for Leader Dog Zoe and me to spend that week in 2011 with you and your young students!

      Enjoy this weekend, and take care–Alice and Willow

  4. Joyce Boltz permalink

    Braille sounds interesting, but difficult me. I am not very good at memorizing.

    • Hi, Joyce–How wonderful to hear from you again on WORDWALK! Thank you for reading this “braille” post and taking the time to send a comment.  I will e-mail you soon.

      Take good care, and “Hello” to all at CRC–Alice and Willow

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