Learning braille

As regular readers of my blog know, I love learning new things. As a teacher, I think it’s important to continually put myself in the position of a learner so that I never forget what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table.

I recently set myself the challenge of learning braille. A friend of mine and her mum are braille teachers and I asked them to teach me As I don’t see them often I said I would teach myself some of the basics first so that they could then teach me the more complex parts, and I promised to write my friend a letter in braille when I had managed to learn some. I’m really glad I decided to do this, as I have learn so much more than just a new way of writing the alphabet.

First of all I downloaded a fantastic app called Braille Tutor and started learning the alphabet and numbers. I also used these lovely resources from Twinkl, and these (also from Twinkl), some of which were great from practising the alphabet in context, rather than just a letter at a time. The first thing I realised was that when I first started I was confusing some of the letters for each other.

Take a look at these two letters and you’ll notice that they are very similar. The i and the e are mirror images of each other.


Now look at these and you’ll notice they are like two sides of a square being rotated anti-clockwise by 90° each time.

This gave me a much better understanding of what it must be like to be dyslexic because I mixed up the i with e, and d, f, h and j in a similar way to how people with dyslexia confuse m with w, and b, d, p and q. Even though I knew that these were different letters and that the orientation was important, somehow my brain just kept flipping them over and turning them round.

Learning to read braille has reminded me of how much understanding you lose when you have to decode every word instead of reading fluently – I had to keep taking breaks to mentally recap what I had just read. I always encourage weaker readers to pause and consolidate what they have read before moving on, but my experience reading braille has shown me that I actually need to make them do this much more often with smaller chunks of text.

Once I was confident with the alphabet and numbers I decided it was time to try writing a letter to my friend. I quickly decided that a braille printer was waaaay outside my budget, and so I bought a slate and stylus from Amazon instead.

This was my second lightbulb moment.  Anyone who works in education will know the frustration of marking work and finding that there are no capital letters and very few full stops.  I wrote a post some time ago about this (Why do they do that?) but I now have some new ideas to explain this….

I knew exactly what I wanted to write, and I sat down to compose my letter. Half-an-hour later and my first three attempts were languishing in the recycling bin. I mentally crossed out most of what I had planned to say, and sat down again to write a very basic note. It took me an hour to write 5 lines, and when I read back over what I had written, I noticed that I had missed quite a few capital letters and some punctuation. Obviously I know how to use capital letters and full stops, so what on earth had gone wrong?

The problem was that it’s hard to write braille. You have to remember what the pattern of dots for the letter you want to write is and then you have to reverse it (because with a slate and stylus you work from right to left and mirror write, so that when you turn the paper over the embossed dots are the right way round) – and remember some of those letters are hard to tell apart anyway! You have to make sure that you have placed the stylus in the correct part of the cell and you have to use just the right amount of force – too much and you just poke a hole in the paper; not enough and the indent doesn’t show through clearly enough on the other side. I found I was concentrating so hard on all of this that there was no brain power left for anything else, such as remembering to add in the symbol that means “capitalise the next letter”, and so on a couple of occasions it just slipped my mind.

I’m sure it must be like this for many children in our classrooms, and this experience has helped me to understand exactly how much effort goes into writing a simple sentence. Hopefully, it will also help me to think of new ways to help them so that they become able to express what they want to say, instead of limiting themselves to what they feel able to say, and so that their punctuation is accurate more consistently.

There’s still so much more I need to learn for braille. I still have the contracted form to tackle- I haven’t even mastered double letters yet so that may take a while. I’m glad I’ve made a start though. It means I can send my friend Nicki letters from time to time instead of only ever communicating by text/email and I’ve improved my teaching practice at the same time.

Beast Quest Comprehension

bqcI’m not a literary snob, really I’m not – I’ll take a ‘thumping good read’ over a ‘short-listed for the Booker prize’ any day. Even so, when I began working with a child who hated reading but who said he was prepared to give the Beast Quest books a go, my heart sank. How on earth was I supposed to find anything of merit in Beast Quest?

The book Daniel* chose was Nixa the Death Bringer from the Avantia series. I decided to work on one chapter per one hour session, so I wrote down 10 questions for each one, which left time to read the chapter at the beginning of the session, and to make a prediction at the end as to what was going to happen in the next chapter. And so, with a sense of despair, I started reading it with a pen in my hand to write down questions.

Well…it surprised me!

Obviously I managed to write some retrieval questions – they were the easy ones. I hadn’t expected to be able to come up with much more than that though.

In fact, I was able to write a whole range from technique (Why did the writer use italics for this section?  What is the purpose of the ellipsis in the 2nd paragraph), to working out the meaning of difficult words (sliver, stifle, pinnacle), and inference (How is the character feeling at the end of this chapter? What makes you think this?)

There were opportunities for Daniel to give and justify opinions (Do you think the title of this chapter was a good one? Why (not)? Do you think the main character made the right decision at the end of this paragraph? Why (not)?) and also to pick out other people’s view points in the text.

There were chances for him to show his understanding by explaining what various pronouns referred to, some of which referred to things in the last or even last but one sentence.

I found examples of alliteration, similes, homonyms….even anthropomorphism!

As Daniel got quicker at answering the questions and at finding the evidence in the text to support his answers, we started to have a few spare minutes at the end of the sessions where we could look at short snippets from other books and even answer a question or two about them. The result? Daniel realised that not all books are boring…he has even started reading for pleasure at home! Last session he proudly told me that the previous evening, instead of spending all his time playing on his Xbox he had read the first 34 pages of Harry Potter.

I’m really glad I took a gamble on basing reading comprehension tuition around Beast Quest instead of just dismissing it out of hand.

* not his real name

For English tuition in the north Birmingham area (Great Barr, Hamstead, Kingstanding, Pheasey, Perry Barr, Streetly) get in touch via my contact page.

Dyslexia Awareness Week

Dyslexia Awareness weekThis week is Dyslexia Awareness Week, so it seemed a good time for a reminder of some of the posts I have written about the subject, and for some suggestions of other interesting pieces to read.

Something simple that everybody can do to help those with dyslexia is to make their documents dyslexia-friendly, and my post of a few months ago gave several hints and tips to make documents easier for people with dyslexia to read.

Reading and spelling are two things that those with dyslexia find difficult, and I have given some suggestions for helping children with these in my blog posts a multisensory approach to reading” and a multisensory approach to spelling.

I have come across some useful articles on other sites too, and I recommend that you check these out:

What it’s like to be dyslexic
How to teach your dyslexic child to read
Teaching dyslexic children: signs, observations and advice
Supporting students with dyslexia

My final recommendation is for a dictionary – but not just an ordinary dictionary though. When you use the ACE Spelling Dictionary, you look up the words by how they sound as if they are spelt, and the dictionary gives you the word as it is really spelt. Brilliant!

If you think you have dyslexia, or you are worried that your child does, then help is available.  For advice about where to turn next you can visit  the British Dyslexia Association or Dyslexia Action.

If you live in north Birmingham and would like to talk about private tuition for you or your child, then get in touch.

Phonics in a School for the Deaf

As a teacher who has been learning sign language (BSL) for the last few years, I have often wondered how you would teach a deaf child to read. Recently I was lucky enough to find out, when I spent a few days observing and teaching in a school for deaf children.

The first lesson each morning was visual phonics.

Each sound has a sign associated with it which is related to the relevant fingerspelling sign and to whereabouts in the mouth the sound is made.

The children do have time each week with a speech therapist, but as they obviously spend more time in class, the class teacher also has responsibility for this aspect of their learning. She gets them to touch her throat so they can feel how the sound is made, and then they touch their own throat to see if the movement is the same. They also put their hands in front of the teacher’s mouth to feel whether or not air is expelled for that particular sound, and they concentrate on the shape the lips make. All this means that even if they can’t make the sound properly, they can replicate the lip patterns, which is essential for BSL.

There are a range of hearing abilities in the class – some of the children are profoundly deaf and have been from birth; others wear hearing aids or have cochlear implants and have some hearing. Before lessons begin each morning, all hearing aids and cochlear implants are checked to make sure that they are working correctly.

Just like in a hearing school, the children practise the sounds they have already learnt before learning a new one, and the phonics lesson is split between oral practise and writing words containing those sounds. They find blending the sounds to form whole words difficult, especially those who are profoundly deaf. The children in this school will do the same national phonics test as their peers in hearing schools. However, because it is harder for them to learn, their phonics lessons continue into KS2.

The teachers and teaching assistants ‘listen’ to the children reading – the children read their books and sign each word to show that they recognise the word, and in a guided reading lesson the other children in the group are expected to follow, just as they would be in a hearing school. As you would expect, the teachers will question the children to check understanding, and they are expected to predict, make inferences etc just the same as their hearing peers in mainstream schools.

Related posts: Deaf Awareness Week  Singing in a School for the Deaf   Literacy in a School for the Deafx

Tips on how to teach your dyslexic child to read.

There are really some useful ideas in this post over at The Brain Gym Dublin for helping all readers, not just those with dyslexia.

Dyslexics have difficulty recalling words.

As soon as your child has learned enough common sight words if they continue reading very easy books every day they will usually be able to recall the words they have learned and gradually build up a reading vocabulary.

If your child reads only now and then, they will forget the words, begin substituting others, become discouraged and make little progress.”  To read the rest of this useful post, visit The Brain Gym Dublin.