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The Braille Monitor – October 2000 Issue


Trends in the Use of Braille Contractions in the United States: Implications for UBC Decisions

by Sally S. Mangold, Ph.D.

Dr. Sally Mangold
Dr. Sally Mangold

From the Editor: Sally Mangold is one of the most respected researchers and teachers of Braille in the United States. When she talks or writes about Braille and Braille instruction, I pay attention. Most of the time, I must confess, I let the Braille discussions roll over me without paying much attention. I am just grateful that I know and can use the code effectively. Simple inertia leads me to prefer things the way they are, though I must admit that reading material printed in the proposed Unified Braille Code (UBC) doesn't detract from my ability to follow it. After all, I just finished rereading an edition of Pride and Prejudice transcribed about forty years ago, and I was surprised to notice how many changes have taken place in the code. But noticing the differences in no way prevented me from enjoying the text.

I mention all this because I recognize that my resistance to change is nothing more than unthinking laziness. Therefore, when Sally Mangold sent me the following article pointing out sound pedagogical reasons for making the changes in the Braille code which she and others are now suggesting, I was forced to focus on them and really consider the importance of what is being proposed. After all, we want Braille to be accessible to everyone who needs it, and we want teachers to find it easy to help young children and new Braille learners to master the code. The time has come to think seriously about what Dr. Mangold says on this subject. Here it is:


The practice of educating blind children in regular classrooms with sighted peers is growing worldwide. Hundreds of blind children have been successfully mainstreamed during the last two decades. Many of them are now adults with excellent Braille literacy skills allowing full and independent participation in society. It is unfortunate that an even greater number of blind individuals did not acquire adequate Braille literacy skills while in school and therefore remain unemployed. Experience has shown that blind children can be successfully educated in the regular classroom if they have abundant Braille materials equivalent to the print materials provided to their sighted peers. In addition to instruction from the regular classroom teacher these students must receive supplementary instruction from a teacher with knowledge of the Braille code.

The Unified Braille Code (UBC) committees are working diligently to create a more efficient Braille system for the English-speaking countries. Committee III is responsible for the selection of a recommended list of Braille contractions to be incorporated into the revised literary code. It is important that the members of Committee III decide which Braille contractions promote rapid and accurate Braille reading and writing in light of contemporary pedagogical issues. The author fervently hopes that this paper will stimulate an interest in documenting contemporary pedagogy and considering the opinions of leading educators in all English-speaking countries before establishing official code changes. A new Braille code should be both appropriate for the students of today and easy to implement.

Current Trends

The Braille literacy movement in the United States is expressed by the actions of two major groups. There is an establishment movement whose members represent various governmental agencies, private agencies, Braille code specialists, Braille transcribers, and Braille embossing houses. Their concerns often center on changing technology as it relates to Braille production using the present Braille codes. They continue to adhere to the official Braille codes during production but would welcome changes in the codes that result in a more consistent and reader-friendly product.

There is also a consumer/educator-driven movement whose members represent teachers, parents, and blind consumers of all ages. They support the efforts of teachers and consumers who for many years have quietly made changes in the Braille literary code and its uses. The changes relate directly to the use of certain Braille contractions and a greater use of letter-by- letter Grade I Braille. These deviations from the official code are occurring in an attempt to represent print formats used in regular classrooms more accurately. New technology allows the gradual introduction of contractions as each student reaches developmental milestones.

When is uncontracted Braille used? Which Braille contractions are being eliminated? The outstanding work of Committee II and its recommendations for changes in the Braille code highlight the most frequently requested code changes by both Braille literacy action groups. Committee II recommends the deletion of ble, com, dd, to, into, and by. There are also recommendations for certain changes regarding the use of specific short-form words.

A growing number of educators are eliminating four groups of contractions in addition to those recommended by Committee II:

*Whole-word lower contractions that are identical in configuration to upper single letter whole-word contractions. They include be, were, his, was, in, and enough. These lower contractions are not easily read by many students, even at advanced reading levels and even when contextual clues are plentiful.

*Double-letter lower contractions that are identical in configuration to single letters. They include bb, cc, dd, ff, and gg.

*Two-cell contractions that begin with the dots 5-6. They include ence, ong, ful, tion, ness, ment, and ity. Confusion between letters preceded by the letter sign and these contractions often occurs.

*The two-cell contractions that begin with dot 6, ation and ally. These contractions are often interpreted as capital letters rather than contractions.

All of the above contractions are somewhat difficult for beginning Braille readers to identify in short phrases, and many are extremely difficult to identify when isolated in word lists. I personally support the elimination of all of the above-mentioned problem contractions.

Many educators and consumers believe that unambiguous contractions that have unique configurations, for example, er, ar, ed, should be maintained and used when the students have reached upper elementary developmental milestones. Basic concepts of alliteration and phonetic word construction will have been mastered at this level.

How is a modified Braille code being used? An entire region of Minnesota has adopted a policy of Grade I Braille in the first year of school. Gradual introduction of Grade II contractions takes place during the subsequent years.

Discussion: The teachers involved in the pilot program reported that after one year they have observed higher academic achievement scores in reading rates and reading accuracy in children using Grade I than was previously seen in children using Grade II in the first year of school. The Grade I users showed greater interaction and participation with sighted children both academically and socially. Grade I can easily be incorporated in books, games, spelling competition, and life-skills labeling.

Multiply impaired blind children are being introduced to Grade I Braille first. Short-form words and Grade II contractions are introduced after thorough mastery of the alphabet and beginning reading has been achieved.

Discussion: Multiply handicapped and learning-disabled students must have extensive practice at each level before being introduced to new symbols. The presentation in Grade I is consistent in configuration whenever used. The teachers report a reduction in Braille letter-reversal reading errors when Grade I is used for an extended period of time.

Grade I is being used more with beginning readers of all ages.

Discussion: Beginning reading exercises, spelling, and introduction of new vocabulary often show words in isolation. As the reading vocabulary increases, the majority of contracted words may be more easily understood in context.

Certain single-cell lower contractions and certain two-cell contractions appear to be difficult for many readers to interpret with confidence even at more advanced reading levels. The problem contractions, in addition to those identified by Committee II, are his, were, was, be, in, enough, bb, cc, dd, ff, gg, ful, ong, ment, ity, ation, and ally.

Discussion: Undesirable hand movements have been observed as Braille readers frequently recheck these contractions in order to discern whether they are reading an upper- or a lower-cell contraction. It is almost impossible to identify single-cell lower contractions when they appear in columns. The overwhelming majority of educators with whom I speak want to see these contractions eliminated from the code. Until such a decision is made, the problem contractions are often being written in Grade I.

Grade I is required for the use of new technology. Voice-output and dynamic Braille-display devices frequently require the use of both Grade I and Grade II Braille when entering commands for operations.

Discussion: We have many myths in education. For years it has been said that a student would become confused if presented with both Grade I and Grade II Braille. It was feared that the use of both codes would result in inaccurate writing and unacceptable practices. One need only observe a few of the thousands of capable blind children and adults who use technology to produce papers and reports to see that a well trained individual can successfully use both codes interchangeably.

Grade I Braille is used for instruction of newly blinded youth and adults.

Discussion: New teaching methodologies use Braille labels in Grade I for an extended period of time before introducing books. The first books are in Grade I. Instructors believe that greater immediate success in using Braille to complete daily tasks and regain literacy skills increases self- confidence of newly blinded youth and adults.

Parents and regular classroom teachers are learning and using Grade I Braille.

Discussion: Parents and regular classroom teachers are learning the Braille alphabet and numerals when their blind students are first introduced to Grade I Braille. They are correcting assignments, writing accurate examples in Braille for the students, and enjoying Braille themselves. Their enthusiasm encourages the students. They can provide immediate feedback to the children about their performance and quickly correct errors. Many blind students who are mainstreamed do not have the services of a vision teacher each day and often receive no feedback about the Braille they produce until several days have elapsed.

There is a rapidly growing trend to use Grade I Braille for writing at beginning levels.

Discussion: Teachers and sighted peers spell words to the blind child one letter at a time. The blind child writes the words one letter at a time. The presentation of Grade I in reading books provides an accurate model for the young child who is already writing Grade I. I believe that we will continue to see even greater use of Grade I Braille in the future.

A History of Controversy

A Braille literacy movement took place in France during the 1830's. No one wanted to change the traditional training for the blind. The raised- print letters used for classroom instruction were very difficult to produce and were read very slowly by touch. The resistance to change resulted from a belief that, because of the common typestyle, any sighted person could assist any blind child, which made education more accessible to the blind. Braille as an official educational medium was accepted only after blind high school students insisted on using the code because it allowed them to write for the first time. One brave teacher convinced the school board to adopt Braille as an official code after he observed improved interest and achievement among his students who were using Braille.

We need to listen to blind consumers today. They are demonstrating new uses for Braille and articulating unresolved needs. The blind adult population has demonstrated its immense ability to infuse new symbols into the official code and use technologies that require the mastery of both Grade I and Grade II Braille.

Our present code was never thoroughly researched when it was adopted early in this century. The practice of using Grade II only was a unilateral decision by Bob Irwin, then president of the American Foundation for the Blind. His main impetus was to provide a Braille reading code that would parallel the sight-reading approach used in regular classrooms during the 1930's. The U.S. was just recovering from an economic depression, and he showed that using Grade II could save money because it took less paper. His decision was opposed by the national organization of educators, to no avail.

From 1910 until 1950 there was a commonly used method for teaching Braille. Grade I Braille (alphabet only) was taught in the first three years of school. Grade I and one-half (alphabet plus 44 one-cell contractions) was taught during the next three years. Grade II Braille (alphabet plus 189 one-cell and two-cell contractions) was taught in year seven and used through year twelve. The most difficult contractions to learn were not introduced until the seventh year and were taught within an educational system that provided Braille instruction every hour of the school day.

The cognitive demands of young blind children are greater than those required of their sighted peers if all of the contractions are presented during the first year of school. The number of abstract symbols is much higher in Braille than in print. The correct application of many contractions requires discrete spatial interpretation that is difficult for most young learners.

The majority of blind people educated by the three-levels-of- contractions method were good Braille readers. They exhibited proficiency in writing, spelling, and grammar. The vast majority became independent and self-sufficient adults. These were blind students with average and above average academic abilities. They could probably have excelled with any code of Braille. Today's population of students is very different, and their learning needs must be addressed when selecting acceptable Braille contractions. The research by Troughton and Mangold supports the use of Grade I for certain purposes. The data indicate that applications for the use of Braille must be considered in the selection of the most appropriate code relative to a given purpose.


The deletion of certain contractions, as recommended by Committee III, is appropriate: ble, in, to, into, com, dd, and by. The additional contractions that should be eliminated are bb, cc, dd, gg, ful, ong, ence, ment, tion, ity, ally, and ation.

Certain limitations on the use of short-form words are appropriate as recommended by Committee II. The code used to introduce Braille should be uniform as much as possible throughout the world so that materials may be shared and easily understood by blind learners of all ages and all nationalities.

The beginning students reading Braille should have a one-to-one correspondence in Braille to print materials given to sighted peers so that they can interact more fully in the regular classroom.

The introduction of two-cell contractions should be postponed until the blind learner has mastered basic reading and spelling.

The members of Committee III should share information about the teaching practices in their countries.

The final report for Committee III should include a description of teaching methodologies that contemporary societies consider sound educational practices.

Tradition does not validate practice. "Now is the time to shake ourselves free of old ideas and traditions. We should not look back but rather go with youth, who always look toward tomorrow." Helen Keller, 1931


Mangold, Sally S., "The Braille literacy movement: A dichotomy of action," Getting in Touch with Literacy, 1997, p. 9.

Ryles, Ruby, "Early Braille Education Vital," The National Braille Press Release, Spring/Summer 1998, p. 3.

Troughton, Marjorie, One Is Fun, Toronto: The Canadian National Institute for the Blind, 1992, p. 119.

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