A Brief Introduction to Braille Currently Used in the United States

Many people know that individuals who are blind/have low vision can use a nonvisual means for reading and writing: Braille. Braille is a code with which we can create expressive written communication and with which we can access written communication created by others. Unlike American Sign Language, braille is NOT a language; it is only a code. Just as print uses lines and curves to represent letters and numbers, braille uses dots to do the same.

While we print readers may not think about it much (or at all), we use different print codes for different purposes. The code we use for most writing is based on Roman letters. For math and science, we use Arabic numbers, Greek letters (at higher levels), and specialized mathematical and scientific notation (subscripts, superscripts, and mathematical operators, just to name a few.). Musical notation has yet a different code—using circles, dots, lines (horizontal and vertical), and curves. Typically-sighted people see these different codes in more environments throughout their lives, so it’s easy to forget how truly diverse and complex the print code is.

Braille has different codes as well. There is a braille code for most writing is typically called “literary braille.” This code is based on the code created by the late Louis Braille, but it has undergone many changes through the years.

Nemeth Code has long been used in the United States to provide blind/low vision students with efficient and robust access to mathematics and science. It was created by the late Dr. Abraham Nemeth, a blind mathematician born in New York City who developed the code to allow him to pursue opportunities in mathematical and science, including a doctorate in mathematics.  

Like literary braille, Music Braille was developed by a young man in France named Louis Braille. He was an accomplished musician and developed this code to enable blind individuals to independently read and write musical notation.

Most recently, in 2016, the United States adopted Unified English Braille (UEB) as the literary braille code in the U.S.: “Braille Authority of North America (BANA) adopts Unified English Braille to replace the current English Braille American Edition in the United States while maintaining the Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision; the Music Braille Code 1997; and the IPA Braille Code, 2008. The official braille codes for the United States will be Unified English Braille, Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision and published updates; Music Braille Code, 1997; and The IPA Braille Code, 2008.” BANA Motion to Adopt UEB, on November 2, 2012.

Current Status of Nemeth Code Use in the United States — Updated for Pi Day 2022

Notes from good friends and colleagues compelled us to update this post. Given that today, Monday, March 14, 2022, is Pi Day, we decided to get right to it!


  • Thirty-one (31) states and the District of Columbia have retained Nemeth Code as the default code for math and science (technical) subjects
  • Seven (7) states set UEB for Technical Materials as the default code.
  • Eleven (11) states have stated that they do not have a default code and that they will support both.
  • One (1) state does not have a final decision.

What’s this all about?

As set forth in A Brief Introduction to Braille in the United States, the move to Unified English Braille (UEB) was not intended to include braille notation for either math or science: “Braille Authority of North America (BANA) adopts Unified English Braille to replace the current English Braille American Edition in the United States while maintaining the Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision…” (emphasis added) BANA resolution that adopted Unified English Braille in the U.S.

Nevertheless, in some states, a few individuals began advocating for UEB Technical and the resulting complete abandonment of Nemeth Code in favor of UEB Technical. This position is clearly contrary to the plain language of the BANA resolution that brought UEB to the United States in the first place. Proponents of this UEB Technical stance also fail to provide any data showing that UEB Technical is as good as, much less better than, Nemeth Code, the braille math code used with great success in the U.S. for decades.

Where the states stand

According to our research, as of March 14, 2022:

  • Thirty-one (31) states and the District of Columbia denote Nemeth Code as the default code for math and science (technical) subjects: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington (state), West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming
  • Seven (7) states set UEB for Technical Materials as the default code: Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, and Virginia.
  • Eleven (11) states have stated that they do not have a default code, will support both Nemeth Code and UEB for Technical Materials, and charge the IEP team with making the decision: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont.
  • One (1) state does not have a final decision. While a draft plan for Pennsylvania was published in 2015, that plan has not been finalized, so there has not been a final decision reached. At this time, Pennsylvania produces textbooks in both UEB with Nemeth Code and in all UEB, see AIM Request Form.

What do these numbers tell us?

State numbers and population equivalents

Nemeth as the default: 31 states and the District of Columbia (representing 73.4% of the U.S. population)

UEB Technical as the default: 7 states (these states represent 10.2% of the U.S. population)

Adopted both Nemeth and UEB Technical: 11 states (these states represent 12.5% of the U.S. population)

No final decision: 1 state (this state represents 3.9% of the U.S. population)

A deeper meaning

At first glance, it seems good that the majority of U.S. states (representing 73.4% of the U.S. population) have decided to follow BANA guidance and retain Nemeth Code as the default code for braille reading students. It is even better to note that 85.9% of the U.S. population lives in a state that has adopted the 2012 BANA Motion and that recognizes Nemeth Code as a robust and time-proven tool to open the doors of instruction in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects for blind/low vision students.

However, it is concerning that seven (7) states (representing only 10.2% of the U.S. population) are ignoring BANA guidance and implementing the unproved UEB Technical code (for which there is no transcriber certification like there is and has long been for Nemeth Code transcription).

In the print world, this is akin to seven states halting the default use of Arabic numerals and replacing them with Roman numerals because, “We use Roman letters, and it is too difficult for students to have to switch to another code for math.” Somehow, we don’t think a switch to Roman numerals for print users would fly, even in just seven states.

Problems with using two math codes

Moreover, the use of both Nemeth Code and UEB Technical poses numerous problems:

Access to college entrance and college-credit exams

There are two major college entrance examinations in the United States, the SAT® (and the PSAT® exams from the College Board) and the ACT®. While the ACT® does offer either Nemeth Code or UEB Technical (see High-Incidence Accommodations, Designated Supports, and Accessibility Supports on the ACT® Test for State Testing and District Testing), the College Board continues to offer only Nemeth Code (see Accommodations and Supports Handbook, 2021-2022).

There are also several exams for which college credit may be given with a high enough score. Note that page 4 of the Accommodations and Supports Handbook, 2021-2022 confirms that all of the College Board college-credit granting exams (Advanced Placement® (AP®) Exams, CLEP®, and ACCUPLACER®) only offer Nemeth Code.

For more information, please check out BEAR’s Nemeth Code Used for All College Board Tests Involving Math and Science blog post.

Adverse educational impact on students

Families needing to move to or from different states for economic or security reasons risk putting their children behind in math due to the need to learn a new Braille math code.

Nemeth Code and UEB Technical are fundamentally different, so much so that most children who are fluent in one code will have a learning curve if forced to use a different code—and they will lose valuable instructional time in STEM content course due to the need to learn a new code to read those materials

  • Such a child may well fall months behind in math classes due to a lack of familiarity with the different code.
  • This will be particularly difficult for children of military families, who will almost certainly move several times throughout their school careers.
    • Certainly states should not wish to become “that state” or “one of those states” that military personnel with blind children know they need to avoid.
  • This change could also be particularly difficult for children from families of lower socioeconomic means due to a need to relocate more often for financial and/or personal safety reasons.
    • Many times, these students do not have strong family support in the area of Braille education—because of lack of parental time, energy, education, etc.
  • A move away from the national standard of Nemeth Code could render these children so bereft of STEM educational opportunities that they might never recover from the lost time taken to learn new codes instead of learning math and science content.
  • There is no reason to set up a system that will automatically place Braille readers at an academic disadvantage upon relocation, especially given that the vast majority of the population (85.9%) of the U.S. lives in areas where the Nemeth Code is recognized as a valuable tool.

Availability of educational materials

Abandoning Nemeth Code will create a problem with accessible math textbooks. All current math textbooks have been produced in Nemeth Code, and there is no certification for UEB Technical transcription in the US.

  • The National Library Service (NLS) provides certification for braille transcriptionists in UEB literary, Nemeth Code, and Music Braille
  • UEB literary was adopted throughout the nation on January 1, 2016, but now, more than six years later, there is still no certification program for UEB Technical materials

Students receiving math and science textbooks and tests in UEB Technical are, necessarily, receiving materials that have been transcribed by an individual who is NOT certified in UEB Technical transcription (because none exists)

  • This situation puts students at high risk of receiving poor quality math transcription.

Post-secondary educational consequences

Colleges and universities in UEB Technical states would be forced to choose between following the national BANA Nemeth Code model or taking the UEB Technical detour.

  • If these institutions do the former, students in UEB Technical states will be ill-equipped to pursue STEM opportunities at any post-secondary institution that follows BANA’s Nemeth Code guidance.
  • If these institutions do the latter, few, if any, out-of-state students will choose to attend their post-secondary institutions due to the high learning curve of switching to a new math and science code.

Additionally, scores of current Nemeth Code-using students would find that their in-state schools are now hostile learning environments due to the abrogation of BANA-recommended Nemeth Code.

  • This could require vocational rehabilitation agencies serving the blind to be required to spend hundreds of thousands of extra tuition dollars to send these students to out-of-state schools where they may pursue higher education opportunities without the need for remediation in math code.

Post-secondary employment consequences

UEB Technical state high school and college graduates will be ill-prepared to enter the post-secondary workforce in any STEM field due to what will become their lack of Nemeth Code knowledge.

It is highly doubtful that the employment sector would abandon the ubiquitous, useful, compact, and BANA-approved Nemeth Code for a limited number of rogue institutions providing only UEB Technical.

Increased expense and depletion of limited resources

Switching to UEB Technical is duplicative and expensive.

For decades, all math and science materials have been produced in Nemeth Code.

  • Supporting two codes will mean that all materials will need to be produced in each code.
  • Supporting two codes will mean that all materials will need to be available in each code.
  • This could well lead to shortages in materials.

Teachers of Students with Blindness/Visual Impairment will have LESS time to instruct children

  • TSBVIs [teachers of the blind and visually impaired] are in short supply as it is; we should not be creating additional, unnecessary drains upon their time.

Free and Low-cost Braille Books

Free hard-copy braille books

Temple Beth El Braille Book Bindery

Individuals may choose from many Braille books in either contracted or uncontracted Braille. The volunteers of Temple Beth El Sisterhood provide these books at no cost, but they welcome donations of Braille paper, Braille binding supplies, and money to support this mission.

Seedlings’ Book Angel Program for Children with Vision Loss

Through this program, blind/low vision U.S. children ages birth through 21 may order up to FIVE (5) free braille books per year.

Braille Institute

Special Collection

Blind/low vision children in the U.S. and Canada may order up to 2 Dots for Tots® kits two times per year (targeted at ages 2-5, but open to all—might be great books to read to younger family members, neighbors, etc.).

Digital Dots

Books available for download in BRF (Braille Ready Format).

Free Braille Books Program from the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults (AAF)

Hard copy braille books. 2023 books include:

  • March: Her Epic Adventure: 25 Women Who Inspire a Life Less Ordinary By Julia De Laurentis Johnston
  • April: Clubhouse Mysteries #3: Shadows of Caesar’s Creek By Sharon M. Draper
  • May: Clubhouse Mysteries #4: The Space Mission Adventure By Sharon M. Draper
  • June: My Name is Maria Isabel By Alma Flor Ada
  • July: Clubhouse Mysteries #5: The Backyard Animal Show By Sharon M. Draper
  • August: Clubhouse Mysteries #6: Stars and Sparks On Stage By Sharon M. Draper
  • September: Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics By Margarita Engle
  • October: The Used-To-Be Best Friend (Jo Jo Makoons #1) By Dawn Quigley
  • November: Fancy Pants (Jo Jo Makoons #2) By Dawn Quigley
  • December: We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices By Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

Xavier Society for the Blind

The Xavier Society for the Blind offers hundreds of texts on religious topics (Catholics) at no charge to patrons. You may become a patron by calling (212) 473-7800 to register for their services. The website notes: “All of our materials are provided at no cost, and there is no fee to sign up. We look forward to hearing from you!”

Low-cost braille books

BRL—Beulah Reimer Legacy

Very reasonably priced, high-quality Braille-print picture books. Great for learning braille as a teen with books you grew up loving and for braille readers taking care of younger children.

Seedlings Braille Books (for purchase)

Seedlings has a wide variety of braille books for purchase (after you get your three free Angel books—see above). Here are the categories of Seedlings books:

  • Print-Braille-and-Picture Books in Uncontracted Braille, in UEB
  • Print-Braille-and-Picture Books in Contracted Braille, in UEB
  • Print-and-Braille Books in Uncontracted Braille, in UEB
  • Print-and-Braille Books in Contracted Braille, in UEB
  • Contracted Braille in UEB
  • Shorter Fiction in Contracted Braille, in EBAE
  • Longer Fiction in Contracted Braille, in EBAE
  • Poetry in Contracted Braille, in EBAE
  • Nonfiction & Biographies in Contracted Braille, in EBAE

National Braille Press (NBP)

NBP has a variety of titles including some not available anywhere else, including technology guides for blind/low vision individuals, cookbooks, recreational reading, books in Spanish and English, and more.

Additionally, NBP’s Children’s Braille Book Club offers a great way to build a Braille book library. For an annual subscription of $120, NBP will send one print/Braille book per month. When my child began elementary school, I convinced the school library to get a subscription. It was a great opportunity to get new books into the library, and the print readers loved those books too (great way to normalize and socialize braille use)!

Read How You Want

Read How You Want is a commercial publisher of accessible books, and available formats include Braille and DAISY digital books. While this publisher is located in Australia, prices are in U.S. dollars, and the variety of titles includes many that are not common in the U.S.

Other sources for braille books

American Printing House for the Blind (APH)

While APH books are not necessarily low in price, schools have funds that can only be spent at APH. In addition to textbooks and early learning books, APH offers books with tactile graphics that can be helpful in science and other classes.

The Braille Bookstore

The Braille Bookstore offers many titles in hard copy braille for all ages, including adults.

Braille Library & Transcribing Services, Inc.

This group offers braille in three ways:

  1. Lending library with more than 2,000 titles for children and adults. “There is no charge for borrowing our books; just tell us your name and contact information and we’ll get you started.”
  2. Purchasing library books.
  3. Transcribing books upon request (fee for this service).

Categories include:

  • Adult Fiction
  • Adult Non-Fiction
  • Children’s
  • Cookbooks
  • Crafts
  • Print/Braille
  • Textbooks

Louis Database of Accessible Materials

“The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) maintains and promotes the Louis Database of Accessible Materials, named in honor of Louis Braille. Louis contains information on accessible materials produced by over 75 organizations throughout the United States and Canada. These materials include educational materials in braille, large print, audio, and electronic file format.

Our aim is to provide maximum visibility to accessible educational materials and to meet that goal, the Louis search also includes information from these national repositories.”

Bookshare – Embossing Bookshare Books

While Bookshare does not provide hard copy books, it does provide the option to download books in BRF (braille-ready file) format. Note: you must be a member of Bookshare to download these files. Then, you may either emboss the books yourself or find another entity (teacher, agency, individual) to perform the embossing.

Accessible Software for Blind/Low Vision Students In-person and Online

Twelve months have passed since schools in this nation began closing due to COVID-19 transmission concerns. Yet throughout the nation, blind/low vision students face unnecessary barriers to learning when school districts mandate the use of software that is inaccessible (or poorly accessible) to screen readers.

Schools’ continued use of inaccessible software is even more egregious. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Education issued clear and unambiguous guidance that schools may not mandate the use of software (or hardware) that blind/low vision individuals cannot use as effectively and efficiently as the software provided to sighted individuals.

Schools’ continuing refusals to make academic content accessible to screen reader users is difficult to understand. Schools (K-12 and colleges) have the legal obligation to make content accessible to screen reader users. This obligation exists under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). In other words, these legal obligations are not at all contingent upon the presence or absence of a student’s IEP.

Below, I set forth some quotations from U.S. Department of Education DCLs (Dear Colleague Letters) and related FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) documents issued in June 2010, and May, 2011. As you will note, even the most recent document was issued almost a decade ago. There is absolutely NO reason why schools did not have accessible software in place in January of 2020. Given the move to distance and hybrid instructional models, there is even less reason why so many continue to fail to meet their legal obligations to make academic content and other learning management tools accessible to screen reader users.

“Congress found when enacting the ADA that individuals with disabilities were uniquely disadvantaged in American society in critical areas such as education. Providing individuals with disabilities full and equal access to educational opportunities is as essential today as it was when the ADA was passed.” June 29, 2010, Joint Dear Colleague Letter from the United State Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.

“Just as a school system would not design a new school without addressing physical accessibility, the implementation of emerging technology should always include planning for accessibility. Given that tens of thousands of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students have visual impairments and that the composition of the student body at a given school may change quickly and unexpectedly, the use of emerging technology at a school without currently enrolled students with visual impairments should include planning to ensure equal access to the educational opportunities and benefits afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology. The planning should include identification of a means to provide immediate delivery of accessible devices or other technology necessary to ensure accessibility from the outset.” May 26, 2011, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter.

“The core principles …— equal opportunity, equal treatment, and the obligation to make modifications to avoid disability-based discrimination — are part of the general nondiscrimination requirements of Section 504 and the ADA. Therefore, all school programs or activities — whether in a “brick and mortar,” online, or other “virtual” context — must be operated in a manner that complies with Federal disability discrimination laws.” May 26, 2011, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter.

“The principles … apply to online programs that are part of the operations of the school, i.e., provided by the school directly or through contractual or other arrangements.” May 26, 2011, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter.

Thoughtful and responsible school officials in school districts that use inaccessible technology do not wish to continue violating the law and harming their students. They simply do not understand the devastating impact of these inaccessible technologies on their students.

BEAR welcomes the opportunity to work with these school officials to bring their schools into compliance with the law and to provide their blind/low vision students access to their education. Please do not hesitate to contact us.

Free, Accessible Technology Tools

Accessible software

Meeting; Screen sharing

Zoom meetings

Word processing, spreadsheets, etc.

Microsoft Office online

Accessible Books

Newspapers and Magazines

  • NFB Newsline (a free audio news service for anyone who is blind, low-vision, deafblind, or otherwise print-disabled that offers access to more than 500 publications, emergency weather alerts, job listings, and more, provided by the National Federation of the Blind)
  • Braille Monitor (the flagship publication of the National Federation of the Blind covering the events and activities of the NFB, addressing the issues we face as blind people, and highlighting NFB members)
  • Future Reflections (a quarterly magazine for parents and teachers of blind children that offers resources and information based on the National Federation of the Blind’s positive philosophy of blindness):

Bookshare Student Guidance

Which students qualify for free subscriptions underwritten by OSEP?

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has funded access to Bookshare for all qualified U.S. students in K-12, post-secondary, graduate and continuing education classes.

“Students” for OSEP funding include enrolled in classes that meet each of the following conditions: (1) are offered by an educational institution, (2) are on-going for a period of at least a month, and (3) are part of a course of study or curriculum that follow a named set of course-work. Both in-person and distance education classes are included.

What kind of “classes” count for OSEP funding?

Some examples of qualifying classes include:

  • Classes that lead to a degree or certificate
  • Professional development courses
  • Guide dog classes
  • Computer training classes
  • Hadley School distance education classes

Examples of activities that don’t qualify:

  • Short courses (less than one month duration)
  • 1:1 tutoring or training
  • Non-academic courses such as an exercise classes

How do you get an individual account if the student already has an institutional account?

If the student already has a student login to Bookshare from his/her institution (school), it is easy to add an Individual Membership. By following this method, your student will have easy access to books assigned by the teacher as well as individually-downloaded books. As explained in this video, you’ll simply have your student:

  1. Log in to Bookshare (using his/her student login)
  2. Select the “Upgrade to an Individual Membership” link from the left menu on the My Bookshare page.
  3. Select the link to “sign up” and complete the online form (parent or guardian must complete the form if the student is under 18).

Once this process is completed, the student will be able to search for and access books of their choice. Please be aware that the student will now have full control over his or her username and password.

You may also access these directions in this video tutorial on “upgrading” a student’s institutional account to a full individual membership.

Copyright Law Exceptions for Blind/Low Vision Individuals, Including Students

History of copyright protections

Copyright laws are a backbone of our nation. We borrowed them from England, where the oldest copyright is now more than 500 years old. Originally, copyright laws protected the publishers, not the authors, of written text. Copyright laws in the United states focus more on authors than on publishers; the United State Constitution empowers the U.S. Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” U.S. Constitution Article I, Section 8, Clause 8.

Current U.S. copyright law: exceptions for individuals with print disabilities

In the U.S., copyright protections may be granted by Congress, but they may also be narrowed by Congress. With respect to individuals with print disabilities, Congress has passed several laws narrowing copyright protections for copyrighted materials distributed in the United States[1] or exported to[2] or imported from[3] countries party to the Marrakesh Treaty.[4]

Requirement for publishers to provide sources files for copyrighted print materials for U.S. K-12 students with print disabilities

For U.S. students with print disabilities in elementary and secondary school, Congress has done more than simply allow the reproduction of copyrighted print materials.[5] On December 3, 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 became law. This legislation placed an affirmative duty upon states to, by December 3, 2006 (two years later),[6] either participate in NIMAC (National Instructional Materials Access Center) or develop its own system to “provide instructional materials to blind persons or other persons with print disabilities in a timely manner.”[7] This legislation actually requires states to include in every contract for the purchase of print materials a requirement that the publisher provide files needed to make these materials accessible for students with print disabilities.

Obtaining accessible curricular materials for K-12 students with print disabilities in the U.S.

Many times, schools, individual educators, or parents will approach the publisher of print curricular materials asking for these accessible files. Many times, that publisher will claim that it cannot produce “source files” needed to efficiently produce accessible curricular materials for students with print disabilities. It can be helpful to share with that publisher the U.S. copyright law that specifically states, “it is not an infringement of copyright for a publisher of print instructional materials for use in elementary or secondary schools to create and distribute to the National Instructional Materials Access Center copies of the electronic files.”[8] Thus, any publisher’s claim that it cannot provide these materials due to copyright restrictions is wholly without merit.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that publishers are not required to provide these source files to individual students, parents, teachers, or even school districts. Instead, publishers must provide these files to state departments of education, so school districts should communicate with their state departments of education to obtain NIMAC files for eligible students.

Next steps

All U.S.[9] students with print disabilities should have full access to curricular materials from publishers through NIMAC.[10] Educators seeking access to source files (from which accessible materials may be made efficiently) should contact the NIMAC coordinator for their state. Parents or students wanting this access should ask an administrator at the school to contact your state’s NIMAC coordinator to obtain the file as quickly as possible.

Accessible materials are not limited to NIMAC files

Please note that U.S. students with print disabilities are entitled to accessible curricular materials regardless of whether those materials are available through NIMAC. In fact, the majority of needed curricular materials are likely created by teachers, and none of those are available through NIMAC. Thus, while NIMAC is a great source for publisher-produced curricular materials (like textbooks), U.S. students have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which includes the provision of ALL curricular materials be provided a format that provides the student “an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of”[11] use of those curricular materials.

[1] 17 U.S.C. section 121.

[2] 17 U.S.C. section 121A(a).

[3] 17 U.S.C. section 121A(b).

[4] Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities concluded at Marrakesh, Morocco, on June 28, 2013. 17 U.S.C. section 121A(f)(2).

[5] “The term ‘print instructional materials’ means printed textbooks and related printed core materials that are written and published primarily for use in elementary school and secondary school instruction and are required by a State educational agency or local educational agency for use by students in the classroom.” 20 U.S.C. section 1474(e)(3)(C).

[6] 20 U.S.C. section 1412(a)(23)(C)

[7] 20 U.S.C. section 1412(a)(23)(B)

[8] 17 U.S.C. section 121(c).

[9] All fifty U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S Virgin Islands participate in NIMAC. Additionally, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) participates has a NIMAC coordinator.

[10] National Instructional Materials Access Center

[11] 28 C.F.R. section 35.160(b)(1).

Best Practices in Distance Instruction

Change can be difficult and scary. Unwanted change stirs up even more emotions. Add in a public health emergency and statewide stay-at-home orders, and many talented professionals will struggle with the planning and implementation of new ways to perform familiar tasks.

For the most part, distance instruction need not be a great departure from in-person instruction. The methods we use to impart information to students and to elicit evidence of learning from them will change to some extent. Nevertheless, tools that have brought success inside the school building, like creative instructional planning, proactive distribution of accessible educational materials, and thoughtful and regular use of formative assessments, will continue to serve our students in the distance learning environment.

First, Determine the “Why?”

When faced with the new challenge to deliver meaningful instruction via distance learning, it is tempting to view this task in terms of the in-person methods with which we are familiar. We analyze our former teaching methods using the questions “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” and “How?”. Many times, this type of inquiry can be overwhelming, and it can cause feelings of hopelessness. After all, there are some tasks we educators do that cannot be replicated via distance learning.

Instead, the first question we should ask ourselves when planning to transition to a new learning platform, like distance learning, is “Why?” Why do we want to teach this lesson; what do we want our students to learn? We must dig down deep to determine the actual purpose of each of our lessons. What are we expecting students to learn from the assignment? When determining our curriculum for emergency distance instruction for the last two months of a school year, we must prioritize those “Why?”s to determine what we must teach via distance instruction so that we may ensure that our students are prepared for the next school year.

Answer Other Questions in Terms of the “Why?”

Once we have determined the “Why?” and have selected the very most important “Why?”s  our students need, we can begin to contemplate the other questions we face.


The “Who?” will certainly be our students. However, our students will achieve mastery of the “Why?” priorities at different times. Some of our students will have already mastered some, or even all, of the priorities we have identified. We may want to add some enrichment ideas for those students to maintain their skills and to move forward in the summer months so that they will be intellectually prepared and emotionally engaged with learning  for the start of the next school year. Some of our students will not have mastered the needed skills yet. We have already determined that each of our students need to master these skills in order to be ready for school in the fall, so we must provide differentiated instruction in order to help our students learn what they need to learn.

Parents, families, and caregivers are the other “Who?” in the education of a child. Inside the school building, it can be challenging to engage these stakeholders; the school building is a barrier between the teacher and the family. In the distance learning environment, families are likely omnipresent, and we should embrace this opportunity to engage them in the learning process. View the increased availability of parents as a silver lining of the COVID-19 cloud.


Again, the prioritization list developed in the “Why?” analysis makes the task of choosing “What?” to teach easier. For language arts, we know the minimum knowledge a student must have mastered to be prepared for the next school year. We can review the students’ level of mastery before school closure, compare that to the mastery level needed for the following school year, and we are left with the minimum level of mastery our student need to achieve by the fall. We would use this same process with all academic content. So long as students receive this minimum level of instruction, they will be ready to learn when in-person schooling resumes.

Consider an elementary physical education class. While it is not “core” academic instruction, it is important for student development (otherwise, we would not dedicate our scarce educational resources to it). Some “Why?”s in physical education class include preparing students for a lifetime of physical fitness, developing transferrable skills (like hand-eye coordination), and cooperative social skill building. One activity addressing these skills is a game where students stand in a circle, and one student has a ball. Each student is assigned a number, and the student throwing the ball must call out the number of the person to whom s/he is throwing the ball. The receiving student must catch the ball and then throw it to another student, calling out that student’s number. In addition to the physical aspect of this game, it teaches listening skills (to be ready when one’s own number is called), and it forces students to pay attention to others in the group and remember their numbers). How to do this via distance? The audio would be identical, but instead of throwing the ball to another student, the student would throw the ball up and catch it—both when the student’s number is called and when calling another student’s number. We could make it more fun by throwing other things, like a favorite toy or stuffed animal instead of a ball. By focusing on the “Why?” of the activity, it is much easier to adapt the activity to a distance learning platform.


“When?” may seem an easy question to answer. However, the realities of stay-at-home orders complicate this question significantly. Just as many parents of our students are working from home, many educators have children at home, and they must parent their home learners as well as provide instruction to their students.

In school buildings, the “When?” is immutable; schedules are wholly dependent on building hours. In the distance learning environment, we are not so constrained. We need not limit instructional availability to just a few hours each morning.

Distance learning provides opportunities to tailor instructional delivery to the needs of students, their families, and teachers. For example, the “flipped classroom” provides significant flexibility. Teachers will prepare instructional media (ensuring that all students have access to the medium). Types of instructional media include YouTube videos, audio-only podcasts, recorded telephone messages, etc., and teachers can prepare these anytime during the week. Not only will students and families be able to access this instruction at any time, they will be able to repeat and review it. Live instruction would then be an opportunity for students to discuss the assignment and to engage in much-needed social interaction with their peers and their teacher. By focusing on interaction in the live lesson, teachers are better able to assess student knowledge and further differentiate instruction as needed.


In general, the “Where?” of distance instruction will be at the student’s home. As noted above, the “Where?” may be in front of a computer or tablet screen, on the telephone, or listening to instruction on a local radio station. Of course, those devices need not be confined to one location in the student’s home. Just as we have “comfy” bean bags in the classroom, and just as we sometimes take learning outside to a patch of grass behind the school building, our students can take their devices anywhere safe to engage in the learning process.


In the physical classroom, professional educators provide differentiated instruction every day, but how can it be done in the world of distance learning? As noted above, distance learning affords us different opportunities to interact with our students and their families. We no longer must commute to work, we do not spend time changing classes, etc., so we have additional time available to call families and provide the extra assistance some of our students need. We can even set up “tutoring” sessions so that several students needing more intensive instruction and practice may do so with the teacher outside of “official” class time.

For most schools, the greatest obstacle to distance learning is ensuring that all students have access to it. Some schools will not be able to provide online learning experiences, but they can provide telephone instruction in combination with hard copy paper instructional materials. Again, by focusing on the “Why?” of the instruction, we can embrace the “open doors” provided by distance instruction to determine the “How?”

What About Students with Disabilities?

Students with disabilities are, first and foremost, students. The same “Why?” inquiry needs to be made for them—in terms of academic content, need for social interaction, and for any services, accommodations, modifications, and assistive technology they need to access a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Even when schools were open, IEP teams had the duty to provide school-purchased assistive technology for use at home when needed for the student to achieve FAPE.[1] School closures do not change this requirement; in fact, it is likely that more assistive technology will be needed when all instruction occurs in the home.

Now, as always, cost cannot be a factor in determining what a student with one or more disabilities needs to assess FAPE and to become prepared for post-secondary education, post-secondary employment, and independent living. In March, Congress appropriate more than $13.2 billion dollars to schools for COVID-19 expenses—almost doubling the entire Fiscal Year 2020 federal appropriation for special education.

With regard to services, use the “Why?” approach. What does the student need to be prepared for the upcoming school year (both academic and needs)? For years, therapy services (physical, occupational, speech) have been provided via distance, and even “hands-on” services like Braille and cane travel instruction can be provided using distance technology.

Bottom Line

Approach challenges wearing the hat of an educator. Put aside the administrative details until after making the determination of the minimum education required. When considering the administrative details, think outside the four walls of the classroom. Embrace the opportunities distance instruction provides, and know that sound instructional practices transcend physical location and method of delivery.

[1] 34 C.F.R. section 300.105(b).

Documentaries and Documentary Series Now Available for Free on Netflix’s U.S. YouTube Channel

Netflix has offered free access to high-quality documentaries to teachers for years. Now that schools are closed, Netflix has opened access to all.

Most of these videos have educational resources prepared for them, from short educational guides to full website. Links to these educational resources are embedded in the bracketed text following the title.

Regarding accessibility, at least some of these videos have closed captioning. Unfortunately, I was not able to access audio description within YouTube, and my search for how to do so led me to articles claiming that YouTube simply does not support audio description, even when the original video has it. If anyone does figure out how to make audio description work on posted YouTube videos, please let me know ASAP.

These videos are also available through a paid Netflix subscription. All of the documentaries except “Period. End of Sentence.” have English audio description available; “Period. End of Sentence.” Offers audio description, but only in the Hindi language. Each of the series has audio described episodes (I didn’t check every episode, but I’m guessing the if one is audio-described, they all are.)

You may access all of these free documentaries at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLvahqwMqN4M0GRkZY8WkLZMb6Z-W7qbLA

Here is a list of videos available: