Math by Touch: A Braille Puzzle for Your Students (Part 1)

Our two-part “Math by Touch” blog series is designed to be used by teachers with their students in Grades 3–6 to incorporate learning Braille with math. You’ll find creative scenarios to get students engaged, historical details, and fun puzzles. Read Part 2 here.

Imagine Why Braille Was Needed

How do you get your class to understand why Braille is important? Try this exercise in imagination by asking your students to close their eyes and picture this:

It’s 1805, and you’re a foot-soldier in military general Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army. Your campaign is to wage unprecedented warfare against those armies competing against you for possession of European colonies. You learn of secret operations and the movements of your enemies through messages you receive in the middle of the night.

One message, detailing the crusade you are about to lead into the treacherous Russian territory ahead, is delivered in the black of night. You hand it off to another soldier and bring him a lantern by which to read. Mere seconds later, a gunshot echoes in the distance. Then, a grenade. The enemy was watching you. The light gave you away.

You continue to lose soldiers—friends!—due to these reading conditions. You know how important it is to receive updates on enemy whereabouts, but you also know you can’t afford to lose anyone else on your side. You start to think. How can you send messages without having the light to read them?

You begin by shortening the alphabet into key sounds and pieces of words: an, de, oi. You code the letters and pieces into raised dots that can be felt, instead of seen, on a page. In combination, the feel of the dots can translate into meaningful sentences: there will be a siege at midnight. No light needed. Suddenly, your soldiers are safer. They can read without a light! But more importantly, your position is safe. No one can find your hiding place in the night. 

How Braille Was Created

You just imagined yourself as Charles Barbier, a soldier during the French War of the Third Coalition. Barbier realized how problematic reading correspondences could be on the battlefield. After witnessing the deaths of several soldiers, Barbier created a read-by-touch alternative to more traditional communications. This system—which used raised dots within a cell to indicate a letter, sound, or combination of letters—was later developed into a more sophisticated alphabet still used today: Braille.

At the age of 15, Louis Braille adapted Charles Barbier’s night-writing system so it could be used with the blind and visually impaired. Today, Braille is widely used in schools, restaurants, businesses, and hospitals to ensure accessibility for the visually impaired all over the globe. You may be familiar with the notation: small, raised dots in print or on signs that represent numbers and letters a reader can touch and interpret without sight.

Braille coding enables reading cell by cell with individual letters and numbers raised as specific configurations of dots in a 2 x 3 rectangle.

The configuration of raised dots tells the reader or writer the meaning of each cell. When Braille was first developed and taught by its namesake, Louis Braille, the letters and numbers were presented in cells like this: 

Braille Patterns

While there are many ways to find patterns in the Braille writing system, the fundamentals of developing the code are fairly straightforward. The letters AJ (our first ten letters) are all composed in the top portion of the Braille cell, in dots 1, 2, 4, and 5.

As the alphabet continues, we work into the lower third of the Braille cell. To compose a K, we add a “dot 3,” or a dot in the lower left-hand corner, to the letter A. The next ten letters are all created in this manner: we simply add a dot 3, to each of the first ten letters.

See if you can figure out the rest of the alphabet by trying our “Breaking the Code” puzzle.

You may notice certain nuances in the initial Braille alphabet presentation. For example, to indicate a capital letter, a writer places a “dot 6” in front of the letter he or she wants to capitalize. You may also notice something else. Take a moment to see if you can identify some repeat notation. See it?

Hopefully, you realized that the letter A, notated with a “dot 1,” has the same notation as the number 1. Letter B, similarly, looks just like the number 2, and C looks like the number 3. Though it may sometimes be clear whether the dots indicate a letter or number based on context, writing A and 1 using the exact same notation could definitely get confusing in certain scenarios, like menu writing (are we referring to a dish or a price?) or algebra (is that an article a or variable a?).

This is why a second form of Braille was developed: one that included coding for mathematical symbols and nuances that Louis Braille’s initial alphabet did not. Check out our second post on Shaped next week to learn more about how Braille developed in the math classroom!

Check how you did with our answer key.

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Find more lesson plans and classroom resources on Shaped.