Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.

From now on, I’ll summarise all of our lessons from each week into a single post. For the sake of clarity:


Braille was developed to enable blind people to read and write. A single ‘cell’ of braille consists of six dots. Different combinations of dots are raised from the page to denote different letters or symbols. They are numbered:

The Braille Cell

The Braille Cell (image from the American Foundation for the Blind)

For example, ‘a’ is written with only dot 1, ‘l’ is written with dots 1-2-3, and ‘x’ is written with 1-3-4-6. For a fuller explanation, go to the American Foundation for the Blind ‘Braille: deciphering the code‘ page.

Before the lesson on Tuesday, I used memrise to learn the English alphabet in braille. I’d got about half of the letters by then, and it turns out they’re quite quick to learn visually, at least to recognise the basics of what’s written on a page. [Update on Friday: after just a week of learning, I’m already able to recognise the letters A-T quite quickly whenever I see them, although some letters are easier to remember than others!]

I have a braille primer, including the alphabet to refer to during the lesson. There are two ‘grades’ of braille:

  • Grade 1: everything is written out letter-by-letter. There are also cells denoting punctuation. This is used for basic literacy.
  • Grade 2: a series of contractions are used to make reading and writing faster.

Contractions could be whole words, like ‘you’ being replaced by the same code as the letter ‘y’, ‘j’ for ‘just’, or they can be common letter combinations, like ‘sh’ or ‘gh’ being replaced by a single braille cell, instead of two. The primer I used has a list of these contractions arranged alphabetically for easy reference if you’d like to see examples.

Tuesday’s lesson

We started with M telling me the chants from the fourth lesson.

First writing

I then asked if she had paper ready to do some writing, and she was really excited 🙂

I’d prepared a list of vocabulary from our previous lessons, along with their braille transcriptions, with the help of a braille translator. Here are a few examples, with transcriptions below to help you read them:

'Cotton' in braille


'Slate and stylus' in grade 2 braille

S-L-A-T-E AND ST-Y-L-U-S (the tools you need to write in braille)

'How much do you weigh?' in grade 2 braille

Capital letter follows-H-OW MUCH (2 cells) DO (=d) YOU (=y) W-E-I-GH-?

I started by teaching her ‘slate’ and ‘stylus’ in English, as she had been using the Russian words. I asked her whether she knew any short forms in English braille, or only long ones. I don’t know when it’s normal to start learning Grade 2 braille in your first or second language, but so far M only knows grade 1.

The very first contraction I taught her was ‘and’, which she wrote in both the contracted and long forms in her notebook. We ended up with the following information in her book, with M asking for both the short and long forms, but preferring to only write out the long forms, with short forms as single cells written afterwards. I’ve written them in capitals with dashes so you get an idea of how her page is arranged:




In the end, we’d looked at six contractions: ‘and’, ‘st’, ‘sh’, ‘wh’, ‘in’ and ‘ar’. I don’t think she’ll remember what all the short forms correspond to next lesson, so we’ll talk about note-taking a bit more next time, but for now I think it’s just important that she’s written some words down.

She asked for ‘whistle’, and enjoyed reading out the words as a Russian who didn’t speak English might – spelling/sounding them out in a funny way. Then she did exactly what any fully-sighted student tends to do with unfamiliar spelling patterns in new words – she had trouble pronouncing ‘slate’ properly because of the spelling!

This whole process took about 25 minutes, with me using my braille primer to remind M of any letters she didn’t know and to introduce the contracted forms. I was really pleased to get some reading and writing into the lessons 🙂

I’m not afraid of you

One of M’s favourite mistakes is ‘I don’t afraid it’, so I wrote her a short poem to fix the correct form.

I’m not afraid of the big bad wolf


As I was walking through the woods

I met a big, bad wolf.


He looked at me,

But I didn’t flee,

How silly could I be?


No, I didn’t flee,

I didn’t flee,

Silly, silly me.


So the wolf and I were in the woods

And then I said to him:

“I’m not afraid of a big bad wolf.

No, I’m not afraid of you.

I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid,

No, I’m not afraid of you.”



We spent 20 minutes listening to it repeatedly and learning it – I had it stuck in my head for the rest of the day! I deliberately including a couple of new words: ‘flee’ and ‘boo’. When I recorded it, I accidentally hit the table when saying ‘boo’, so now M hits the table every time she says it! 🙂

In the lesson I only had the faster version, and I read it to and with M to help her when she had trouble.

I recorded a slow version afterwards, and sent both to her to listen to as homework.

Alice in Wonderland

We spent the last 15 minutes listening to chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland. Before we listened, I asked M to tell me what had happened in chapter one. While listening, she said ‘stop’ whenever there was a word or phrase she didn’t know. This only happened twice, for the words ‘pool’, ‘tears’ and ‘shore’. She laughed out loud at the part where Alice was having trouble with geography: “London is the capital of Paris”. “No, no, London is the capital of Britain!” 🙂


We started off with reading. M read what she’d written in the previous lesson, and I then tested her on the short forms by saying the letters, and her telling me the braille code for that short form. For example, I said ‘S-H’ and she said ‘1-4-6’. She asked if she could look at her page to check, which I said was fine, but then I started picking them randomly, which confused her. I’d read (and forgotten) that reading tasks for students using braille should be in the same order as the text, as they can’t dot around the text (skim and scan) in the way that sighted students can – I need to remember this for next time.

I also did a verbal spelling test on the words we wrote on Tuesday. M had trouble with stylus, cotton, brain, whistle. I asked her to spell her name, which she wasn’t confident about in English. She likes both the Russian and (two) English variants of her name, so we wrote them all in her book, giving me the chance to introduce the notation for a capital letter. We also added three new words from the last lesson, including two new short forms: ‘ea’ and ‘con’. After 30 minutes, her page had the following writing on it, with the arrangement determined by the number of cells she had available on each line:

[Russian name – long form] [Russian name – with a contraction] [English name – variant one] P-O-O-L

[English name – variant two] T-E-A-R-S EA C-O-N-T-I-N-U-E CON

After all the reading, writing and spelling, that just left ten minutes to listen to chapter 3 of Alice in Wonderland. There were three new words for her: ‘level’, ‘creature’, and ‘thimble’. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to read the chapter before the lesson, otherwise I would have taken a thimble with me. As it was, I explained it to her, and held her index finger to show how a thimble protects it. She understood, and said ‘It’s like a little cup. I’ve touched one!’, reemphasising the importance of tactile experiences.

M’s mum sat in on the lesson for a few minutes, and reminded M to sit up and put her chin up a few times. Posture is very important, as when left to her own devices, M often has her head down, with her chin resting on her chest, or her forehead on her arm if she’s sitting down. I always ask her to face me when she’s talking to me, as it makes a big difference to how I feel as a listener. She likes to stand up when she’s reciting or singing, and always stands up very straight when she does this.

Her mum also asked for a copy of the English braille chart, as although her parents don’t speak English, they can help her with some of the braille writing.


To start the lesson, M decided to tell me a bit of Oliver Twist again. I really ought to reread it or watch it again so I can remember what happens – the last time I experienced the story was the an amateur musical production at uni, about 7 years ago! She asked if Dickens had written any other children’s books, to which I replied that (I think), there’s only A Christmas Carol. M asked about ‘carol’, knowing it was a name, so I explained it’s a special kind of Christmas song and gave her a couple of examples. M then displayed her beautiful voice again by singing all three verses of Silent Night in Russian. I could only remember a few lines of the English version, including the word ‘Virgin’. This took us on to a discussion of the annunciation (a word which I’ve only remembered while writing this) which is celebrated by Russian Orthodox Christians on M’s birthday, which happens to be four days after mine. As she said, ‘We’re April girls!’ M finished this section of the lesson by showing me the cross she wears around her neck, and telling me about how it keeps her safe. During this discussion, one of her favourite mistakes popped up a couple of times: ‘I very like it’. This is the next mistake I’ll try to deal with.

The rest of the lesson was spent on labelling. We wrote five words, four of which have short forms, on a big piece of paper. We put each word on a new line, leaving a blank line in between so there would be space to cut them up. There are two new contractions, (ed) and (ch), and two old ones, (ar) and (sh). Here are the words:

bed b(ed)

chair (ch)air


wardrobe w(ar)drobe

shelves (sh)elves

You’ll notice that I’ve stopped transcribing in capitals as I’ve finally learnt how to indicate how words should be brailled from this excellent braille introduction, although I’m not going to go back and change how I wrote it before. I checked this introduction because I wasn’t sure about the exact rules for using contractions, as I don’t want to teach M the wrong thing, and I’d read something about syllable boundaries and pronunciation. It actually turns out to be fairly logical. For example, you use (th) to indicate ‘th’ in words like ‘(th)(ough)t’, but not in words like ‘pothole’, where two words are joined and it’s not a /th/ sound.

I was surprised when M asked if she could cut the labels out herself, although I know I shouldn’t have been as there’s no reason why M shouldn’t learn how to use scissors. This was another time when I realised just how much having my sight has influenced my learning. M held the scissors ‘upside-down’, with her thumb facing down rather than up. She also pointed them downwards/vertically, rather than across/horizontally. Finally, her hand was very close to her body, and her elbow tucked in. Taken together, this made it very difficult for her to cut the paper. I took the scissors and held them (closed!) and encouraged her to feel my hand, arm and body to feel the position of the scissors. She held them again with my help, and cut across the paper, producing a very jagged line. The second line was much straighter, as I encouraged her to move the scissors forward before closing them completely so she didn’t let go of the paper each time.

As we were cutting, M was trying to tell me about shapes she could make, and eventually got a stencil she has to show me squares, rectangles and circles. The main problem I had with understanding was that by this stage M was mostly speaking Russian. She’d been speaking more and more Russian throughout the lesson, which I think was because she was tired. This class started at 17:00, the latest one we have. The others are at 12:00 and 14:30 respectively. Although it looks like we didn’t do a lot of writing in each lesson, it’s actually quite tiring for her, as it requires a lot of concentration. The Russian made it quite hard to communicate, and for the first time I had to remind her to speak English.

While she was using the stencil to draw on some of the scrap paper, I cut out the rest of the words to make labels, and transcribed them in (Roman) letters underneath so that her parents could see what each braille cell stands for. Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo, but I’ll try to remember to do this next time. M then stuck them to the relevant pieces of furniture. Thanks to Naomi Epstein for this idea – M loved it! When I asked what she wanted to do next time, she asked for more labels. 🙂

Outside class

On a completely random note, the woman who got on the bus in front of me this morning had a three-line braille tattoo! I think it’s Russian braille, as I can’t make sense of it in English – I wanted to check it was nothing too personal, but I figure that since it’s clearly visible and this is just the first line, it’s OK to have a photo of it. I couldn’t ask her to check. What a cool idea!

Braille tattoo

Later in the day, I also saw a bit of graffiti with a skull on it, with the word ‘blind’ written underneath in English. I’m sure I would never have noticed it before!

Finally, I’ve been teaching a group of young learners (8-11 years old) this week. Our topic was spies, so what better way of reading and writing codes than using braille! Here is the code-breaking sheet:

The sentences are based on a Quizlet set I created. Can you decode them? 🙂 Students then write their name in braille at the bottom of the page. If they still have spaces in the line, they can choose an English word they know and transcribe it into braille for other students to decode. For example, if they have five spaces, they choose a five-letter word. If they enjoy this, you can give them a whole sheet of braille cells to write any codes they choose.

It’s been another fascinating week of lessons with M, and it turns out braille is a lot less scary than I thought it was to start with. If you’re working with students who use braille, or those who are interested in using it, I’d highly recommend familiarising yourself with it, as it’s quite quick and it’s made a huge difference. I can’t read braille with my fingers at all – you need to develop the sensitivity to do it through a lot of practice, but I can look and check what M has written. Another breakthrough 🙂

Comments on: "Rethinking the visual: week four" (9)

  1. In such a short time you have learned so many ways to get around her disability and focus on your goal of teaching! And in such varied ways! So proud of you!


  2. I am a Braille user and I wanted to congratulate you on this really good post and the effort you are putting in to making sure that this student progresses with her writing skills as well as her general English 🙂


    • Thank you very much. Do you have any tips?


      • Not really – you are already doing more than most language teachers would do but I’m happy for you to get back to me if you have any questions or if you think I could help in some way.
        I have never used a slate and stylus. First I had a kind of Braille typewriter on which combinations of the six keys are used to print each cell on the paper. When I got older, I switched to a laptop.
        The only thing I would say is that although it’s good that you’re teaching grade 2, make sure that your student always knows how to spell the words as well. P = people but if she learns to type, as many people do, her spelling may suffer if she only knows that p = people. This is also important because English words aren’t always pronounced as they sound. For example, there is a sign for “many” but a student learning grade 2 Braille and spelling at the same time needs to know that “many” is written with an “a” and not with an “e” as in the word “men”.
        As your student gets more proficient in reading, it might be nice for her to get some Braille books. I’m not sure where you are but the RNIB here in London may let her join their library. I have borrowed books from Germany free of charge for years.
        Whilst it’s right that it can be harder for Braille readers to skimread a text for information, if you’re testing vocabulary, I think it’s still important to change the order of the words because you want to test whether your student actually knows them, not whether she has learned them in sequence.
        I know you can’t fix this but unfortunately the Audioboo plugin is not accessible. The buttons are called “unlabeled 1”, “unlabeled 2” etc. Could you also post the links to the wolf song please?


        • Hi Kirsty,
          Thanks for the advice. We’ve been doing spelling tests as well because I agree that spelling is very important. A very good point about mixing the order for vocabulary learning too.
          Can I ask about learning to type? I assume you touch-type, which is something I’d like to have a go at with M too. I touch type and I think it’s an essential skill for everyone nowadays because it makes such a different to the speed I can do things with! I’ve looked for touch-typing courses/games/programmes online, but they all rely on you reading a line and typing it. Do you have any advice for how I can help M with that too?
          I’m only teaching M while she’s in Sevastopol for the summer, but hopefully she’ll be back again next year – her parents have a second house here and I hope I’ll still be here! I’m really enjoying teaching her and I’m learning so much. I’ll look into braille books – her parents might be willing to buy some for her.
          I’m not sure what the problem with Audioboo is – it seems to working OK on my computer, although it was a bit temperamental when I was writing the post originally. Here are the links:
          – Slow version:
          – Fast version:


  3. Hi Sandy,
    yes, I touch-type and I am so glad that I learned to do this at an early age. It meant that as I got older, I could take more comprehensive notes in lessons than my sighted classmates so I had something to trade if I needed help with other things 😉
    No seriously, it’s a great skill to have but I remember that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it when I had my first lessons..
    I don’t know about accessible touch-typing tutorials and I don’t want to post links to software that I haven’t tested but if you google something like “touch-typing tutorials visually impaired students” there are a number of free programmes.
    You could download a screenreader for your (or your student’s) computer so that it speaks the letters as she types them. People who can type generally don’t use this feature, but you can set the software to speak as you type each letter. You could then do exercises with her where she has to type familiar words (otherwise it would be a spelling and a typing test because she would be getting the information from you verbally.)
    I know that a number of people use a free screenreader (software) called NVDA. I use a screenreader called JAWS. It’s expensive but there is a demo version which runs for 45 minutes, after which the computer has to be rebooted before it can be used again.
    Apple products have a built-in screenreader called Voiceover that just has to be activated in the settings.
    The problem with Audioboo is that whoever designed the plugin didn’t label the graphics on the buttons. Therefore anybody who works with a screenreader, and who can’t see the buttons, doesn’t know what they do. I just know that there are six of them! This problem doesn’t exist on the site, so thanks for the links 🙂


    • Hi Kirsty,
      Thanks for another really helpful comment 🙂 I didn’t know about Voiceover at all, and have now played with it on my iPad and my Macbook. If Masha is interested, I’ll introduce it to her soon.
      I’ve looked online for touch-typing materials for visually impaired learners a few times, and unfortunately the only one that’s suitable for visually impaired learners is not suitable for a Mac, which is annoying. :s
      I’ll try to remember to include links for Audioboo in the future – thanks for letting me know about this issue.


  4. […] started the lesson with a spelling test, based on the furniture labels we made during our last lesson on Friday. M could read all of the words and tell me the contractions, although she couldn’t remember […]


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