Post date: 
Monday, 5 September 2016
John Chester

John Chester (pictured) VI and Sensory Learning Coordinator, shares the techniques he uses to assess braille learners at The Kings Academy, Middlesbrough.

Helping students choose the right media for learning and ultimately the right literacy pathway for them is one of the most important and rewarding parts of my job.

This is made easier for me and the entire visual impairment support department, as The King’s Academy holds literacy acquisition in high regard. Indeed at 9am every day, all students are expected to read for 20 minutes, although this does increase pressure on the department to create and source accessible materials for most of the students supported by the department.

In line with the literacy vision of the Academy, much of my teaching time is spent planning and assessing braille literacy acquisition.

Reading ability

Most schools assess students to attain reading ages so these can be compared to the student’s chronological age, allowing for progress tracking. This doesn’t always work for braille users and indeed students with vision impairment (VI) using other means of access, such as large print.

When I can, I use the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (UEB versions of the texts are available through RNIB Bookshare, formerly known as Load2Learn). The test measures accuracy, rate of reading and comprehension in children aged five to 18 who read contracted braille. The downside is that it only works effectively when students know all the contractions. Many of the students I’ve worked with are between uncontracted and contracted, so I developed my own approaches working alongside the literacy team at the Academy.

Tracking progress

Before starting a braille programme with a student, targets need to be decided. Record these and review progress on a termly basis. Remember they need to be realistic and personalised.

Teaching new braille signs is essential for your students’ progress and sense of achievement. Drip-feeding new reading material which contains the signs they need to focus on allows for clear assessment of their reading abilities.

Below are a couple of examples from the “Random High” series I’m developing, which is a new braille reading and writing scheme:

This section focusses on some of the alphabetic word signs, such as “like”, “but”, “have”, “go”, “can” and “every”.

I emboss the following sentences in braille and ask the student to read it out loud so I can assess their acquisition of the new signs:

  1. I like my old school but now I have to go to a new school.
  2. I said to my Mum, can I stay home?
  3. Every time I asked, she said no.

I then set writing tasks based around the set or family of signs the student is learning. I emboss the following sentences in braille and ask the student to copy them out:

  1. Mark does not like the idea of having to go to a new school. 
  2. His Mum and Dad have to start new jobs.
  3. People can make new friends.

Recording progress

Over the years, I’ve used various methods of recording the progress of students through the contracted braille code. It’s important you know what their strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to reading and writing.

It’s worthwhile to develop your own methods of tracking – I created a table where the first column lists the alphabetic word signs, the second column is used for tracking reading and the third for writing. I also sometimes record the date for all or some of the signs covered, so I can review progress at a later date. I often find that my students forget signs covered earlier on in the code, when covering more advanced and complicated rules or signs.

Giving feedback

It’s no secret that students make the most progress with their learning when given regular feedback. Reading and responding to such feedback itself becomes a learning activity. This method is no different in teaching and assessing braille.

Each half term I give students feedback on what went well, what they need to work on and tasks to complete. The tasks address work that needs revisiting and signals next steps, individualised for the student. Below is an example:

What went well

  • You have used more braille signs in your English classwork
  • You are using more tactile diagrams and are ready to read them on your own

To improve

  • Learn when to use “their”, “there” and “they’re” with support
  • Remember to always use capital letters at the start of sentences and for people’s names


  • Practise writing the short forms for “necessary”, “immediate”, “either”, “great”, “him”, “tonight”, “friend”, “your” and “neither”
  • Start learning “ar”, “ing”, “er” and “ed” signs

The feedback sheet is embossed in braille, which creates a new reading activity. For many students, written feedback (as opposed to verbal) also allows for a deeper learning experience.

Finding inspiration

The internet is a great place to seek new ideas and resources:

  • I-AM-ABLE by Diane P. Wormsley is a fantastic book that provides an “individualised meaning-centred approach to braille literacy”. The sheets in the appendix are great to use at the start of a programme.
  • The Paths to Literacy website has a wonderful strategies and resources sections. 
  • The RNIB Online Shop is an excellent place to look for resources, particularly the new DK braille books.
  • VIEW is the professional association of the VI education workforce. Any professionals teaching braille should take the time to join (it costs around £50 per year). You can then link up with other education professionals and gain access to the latest news, posts and “Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness” web articles.

Teaching braille is something I’m passionate about and it’s important that as professionals we develop approaches that work well for us and our students. The resources and approaches in this article have worked in my practice and I hope you find them useful too. 

If you have a question about any of the articles in this braille series, please feel free to contact John Chester directly at [email protected]

Further information

Insight Online: archive