I am always on the look-out for fun ways to teach/practice braille skills. For print students, there are literally hundreds of educational apps that encourage letter recognition, reading and writing. In this digital age, these apps not only teach reading and writing skills - they also teach critical tech skills! Our braille students do not have unlimited options to the same types of motivating educational apps. Recently, iEnable released the Braille Tutor iOS app. This app is designed for both sighted and visually impaired people to learn and/or practice braille skills.
Braille Tutor uses UEB braille. The free version of the game provides 19 Grade 1 lessons, including letters and simple words. There is a fee to access lessons 20 - 91 (Grade 2 UEB Braille). These lessons are carefully grouped into bite-size chunks of information. Lesson 1 includes the letters A through E along with simple words made up of these letters.
To play the game, simply listen to the direction. The first lesson starts with "Type: a". Using a Bluetooth keyboard, place your left index finger on the F key, your middle finger on the D key, your ring finger on the S key; with your right hand, place your right index finger on the J key, your middle finger on the K key, your ring finger on the L key. These positions correspond with a braille keyboard and dots 1, 2, 3 with your left fingers and dots 4,5,6 with your right fingers. To type the letter "a", press dot 1 (left index finger) then press the space bar. Pressing the space bar indicates that you have completed making the letter or word. If you make three unsuccessful attempts, the app will repeat the letter and provide a hint with the dot numbers that you need to press. Visually, the braille cell on the screen indicates which braille dots are needed to create the letter.
For added motivation, the game includes a specific piano tone for each key/dot number.
To access the various lesson plans, swipe right on the screen. To hide these lesson plan levels, swipe left.
Note: Students can explore the screen to learn the layout and to hear the the piano tones associated with each on-screen input key (braille dot numbers). However, you must use a Bluetooth keyboard to input the braille letters/characters.
For more information about Braille Tutor, go to the iEnable website.
No Braille Experience
If you are not familiar with braille, be sure to read the instructions before playing the game. The instructions provide basic information about braille and then information about the game. The instructions are on the screen when you first open the app. Before starting the game, go into Settings and adjust the speech rate. If you are not familiar with a screen reader, you will want to bring the speech rate all the way to the left side of the slider (slowest speech rate). You can adjust the speech rate at any time while playing the game. The game is self-voicing, meaning you can play the game without running VoiceOver, the iPad's built-in screen reader.
Braille Tutor is basically accessible with VoiceOver, meaning you can access the text and buttons on the screen - this includes reading the instructions, activating features in Settings, and exploring the screen. However, I tried to type in the braille letter or word using the Bluetooth keyboard or refreshable braille display, the app did not respond when VoiceOver was running. When I turned VoiceOver off, the app responded as expected. Since the app is self-voicing, I could successfully play the game without using vision. However, if I did not know the corresponding dot numbers to produce braille letters, the current game did not provide that information until after I unsuccessfully made three attempts to create the braille letter or word. After three attempts, the app voiced the letter again and then gave a hint that included the corresponding dot numbers. When typing a word, the hint gave the corresponding dot numbers to the first letter then waited for me to input that letter successfully. Then, a hint was given for the second letter, etc. until I successfully typed in the correct word.
Refreshable Braille Display
I tried using an APH 18 Refreshabraille with the Braille Tutor app. Since braille displays mimic what VoiceOver announces, I could use the braille display to navigate the app, read the app instructions, activate features in Settings and to explore the screen. The braille display did indicate what should be brailled (Example: "Type: B"). However, with VoiceOver running, when I inputted braille letters using the braille display, the app did not respond. Braille displays only work in conjunction with VoiceOver.
Braille Tutor Users
Braille Tutor is being used by sighted students and adults who are interested in learning braille. This group may include classmates, siblings, family members, classroom teachers, and future teachers of the visually impaired currently enrolled in training programs.
Braille Tutor is also being used by students and adults with visual impairments or blindness. This group may include preschoolers and young students who are emerging braille readers, students and adults who are low vision and may become dual media readers, students/adults who may have progressive eye conditions who may benefit from braille, and students/adults who have recently lost vision.
Braille Tutor is also a great option for students who have physical issue. Pressing the Bluetooth keyboard keys is significantly easier than pressing keys on the classic Perkins Brailler. The Braille Tutor can also be used by students who have only have the use of one hand or even one finger, since the student can press individual keys one at a time, then press the space bar when done.
Currently, a refreshable braille display cannot be used to provide braille input with the Braille Tutor app. If a braille display could be used, then the game would be beneficial for students to become familiar with braille displays and would make the game accessible for those who are deaf/blind.
My Comments and Suggestions
This game is a fun way to learn and practice braille skills! The app is easy to use, has wonderful lesson plans divided into bite-sized chunks, and most importantly - the app is fun!
My suggestion is for braille input to work when VoiceOver is running. This will provide students who need a screen reader opportunities to practice simple screen reader skills and will enable the use of braille displays - providing both braille input and braille output (writing and reading). I would also like an Settings option to hear the hint for the braille letter before attempting to create the letter. Example: "Type: b" or the option of "Type: b, dots 1, 2".