Parent’s guide to the slate and stylus

by Barbara Cheadle

If, after reading the title of this article, you have just asked yourself “Isn’t the slate and stylus obsolete?” or “Isn’t the slate and stylus too hard for children to learn how to use?” or “What is a slate and stylus?” then I hardly need to say more about the need for this guide. For, you see, the answer to the first two questions is a resounding No! No, the slate is not obsolete, and no, it is not too difficult for even small children to learn how to use. As for the last question, “What is a slate and stylus?” let me just say that it is the cheapest, simplest, and most portable method for writing Braille. If your mind is still buzzing with questions, and you are not satisfied with the answers I just gave, then I was right. This guide is long overdue! Read on!

Review Of The Braille System

Braille was first developed about 1820 by a young Frenchman named Louis Braille. He created Braille by modifying a system of night writing which was intended for use on board ships. He did this work as a very young man and had it complete by the time he was about 18. He and his friends at the school for the blind he attended found that reading and writing dots was much faster than reading raised print letters which could not be written by hand. The development of this system by young Louis Braille is now recognized as the most important single development in making it possible for the blind to get a good education.

It took more than a century, however, before people would accept Braille as an excellent way for the blind to read and write. Even today many people underestimate the effectiveness of Braille. While tapes and records are enjoyable, Braille is essential for note taking and helpful for studying such things as math, spelling, and foreign languages.

Experienced Braille readers, however, read Braille at speeds comparable to print readers-200 to 400 words per minute. Such Braille readers say that the only limitation of Braille is that there isn’t enough material available.

Braille consists of arrangements of dots which make up letters of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation marks. The basic Braille symbol is called the Braille cell and consists of six dots arranged in the formation of a rectangle, three dots high and two across. Other symbols consist of only some of these six dots. The six dots are commonly referred to by number according to their position in the cell:

1 4

2 5

3 6

There are no different symbols for capital letters in Braille. Capitalization is accomplished by placing a dot 6 in the cell just before the letter that is capitalized. The first ten letters of the alphabet are used to make numbers. These are preceded by a number sign which is dots 3-4-5-6:



Thus, 1 is number sign a; 2 is number sign b; 10 is number sign a-j and 193 is number sign a-i-c:

Braille is written on heavy paper, and the raised dots prevent the pages from lying smoothly together as they would in a print book. Therefore, Braille books are quite bulky. Some abbreviations are used in standard American Braille in order to reduce its bulk. These must be memorized, but most Braille readers and writers find them convenient, rather than a problem.

What Is a Slate and Stylus?

A slate and stylus is to a Braille reader what a pen or pencil is to a print reader. Like the pen or pencil the slate and stylus is inexpensive, portable, and simple to use. From taking notes in a classroom to jotting down a phone number the uses-and advantages-of the slate to the blind are as many and as varied as those of the pencil or pen are to the sighted.

Just as the pen or pencil is designed to place a visible mark on a piece of paper, the slate and stylus is designed to punch (emboss) raised, tactile bumps or dots onto a page. Since Braille is a very exact system-the dots in the Braille cell must be precisely spaced-it wouldn’t do to attempt to punch dots free-hand onto a page. In order to hand-Braille accurately, there must be a puncher (the stylus) which, when pressed into the paper, will raise a tactile Braille dot, and a guide (the slate) which will allow the user to punch the dots into precise positions.

Just as pens and pencils come in a variety of styles and sizes, so do slates and styluses. All, however, have common characteristics. The typical stylus is about two inches long. It has a half-inch metal point for punching the dot into the page, and a one-and-a-half-inch wooden handle with a rounded knob at the end so it may be firmly and comfortably gripped by the index finger and thumb. Although the handle may vary on different types of styluses, all will have a metal point for embossing Braille dots.

The typical pocket slate is made either of metal or plastic. It is hinged so that there is a guide under the paper and a guide on top. The slate is about the width of an average piece of paper (8 1/2 inches wide) and four lines of Braille high (a little less than 2 inches). The top piece of the guide has small, evenly spaced openings the precise size and shape of the Braille cell. These are sometimes called windows. The bottom guide has small indentations so that the Braille dots will be consistent in shape and size. Again, slates come in different models to suit different writing needs. There is a slate, for example, especially designed to be used as a guide for 3 x 5 note cards. All slates, however, will have a top and bottom guide as described. Together, the typical slate and stylus weigh about two ounces. Both are easily carried in a pocket or purse.

Why Should Blind Children Learn to Use the Slate and Stylus?

For all the same reasons that sighted children learn to write with a pencil and pen. Think about it. Sighted children have had access to typewriters, tape recorders, and even computers for years. Yet, none of these devices has replaced the need for pencil and pen. The ability to take quick, legible notes with a cheap, simple, portable device is important for both print readers and Braille readers. A slate doesn’t use batteries or an electric outlet. It can be carried in a pocket. It is cheap to replace and inexpensive enough that several may be purchased at one time-just like pens. The slate and stylus allows the Braille reader to write down information he or she can immediately read and review anywhere, anytime. A student may easily take a slate and stylus with him or her on school or family trips, to summer camp, Sunday school class, scout meetings-anyplace a pencil can go, a slate and stylus can go. Students may write classroom notes; take a telephone message; take down names, addresses, and telephone numbers; and write out all types of Braille labels and lists with a slate and stylus.

How Does the Slate and Stylus Compare to Other Methods of Writing Braille or Taking Notes?

Most children today begin writing with a Braille writing machine. This may be what your child is currently using. These machines are comparable to typewriters. The Braille writer has a keyboard of only six keys and a space bar, instead of one key for each letter of the alphabet. These keys can be pushed separately or all together. If they are all pushed at the same time they will cause six dots to be raised on the paper in the formation of a Braille cell. Pushing various combinations of the keys on the Braille writer produces different letters of the alphabet and other Braille symbols. The Braille writer is about the size of a medium size typewriter, but is much heavier at ten pounds.

The Braille writer is excellent for writing and editing reports, doing class assignments in the elementary grades, doing math problems, keeping financial records, and generally any Braille writing which does not require moving the Braille writer from place to place frequently. The Braille writer’s bulk and weight make it a poor choice for most note-taking tasks when students begin moving from class to class in school. It is impossible, of course, to slip a Braille writer into a pocket or purse as one does with a slate and stylus.

Sometimes students believe that a tape recorder will handle all their note-taking needs. Although tape recorders are useful to blind students, they are not good note-taking devices. Note-taking means sifting the information as one listens and making decisions about what is important to write down and what is not. It also means condensing and organizing the information as one writes. It is not possible to do any of this quickly or well with a tape recorder. Besides, students who record an hour lecture must spend another hour listening to it-and even more time studying from it. If they had taken Braille notes in class, they could skim through those notes in less than half the time that it would take to study from a taped lecture.

There is also, of course, a whole array of electronic Braille note-taking devices (such as the Braille ‘n Speak), talking computers, and Braille printers for students to choose from today. The Braille note-taking devices are especially popular among high school students, college students, and professionals. It is significant, however, that the most versatile and efficient of these students and professionals are those who also keep a slate handy in their desks or pockets. Even the Director of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind-a facility which displays a sample of every Braille and speaking device for the blind in the world-keeps a slate in his suit pocket. For quick, ordinary note-taking needs, the slate still can’t be beaten.

How Fast Can a Student Write with a Slate and Stylus?

As fast as a sighted student can write notes with a pen or pencil. However, good instruction and daily practice are as important for the Braille student as they are for the sighted student. If the blind student is not keeping up and complains that the slate is too slow, it is probably due to inadequate instruction and/or practice. One author of a slate and stylus teaching manual suggests that blind students should be able to write a minimum of 15 to 20 words per minute by the time they enter high school. This speed is based upon timed trials in which the student writes out complete sentences with correct spelling and punctuation.

Obviously, as the author points out, much faster speed can be obtained when using note-taking shortcuts.

One blind woman worked several years as a note-taker with a state agency which investigated equal employment opportunity complaints. The job required taking notes at formal hearings. Some hearings were recorded, but note-takers were needed for those who objected to this. The notes did not need to be verbatim, but they did need to be thorough and accurate. Some hearings lasted as long as three hours. She could not use a Braille writer for it was deemed too loud and intrusive by the hearing judges. So, she used a slate and stylus to take the notes and typed them up later to turn in. She soon developed a reputation for being an outstanding note-taker, and hearing judges frequently requested her services. The woman learned to write with the slate in first grade, when she was six years old.

How Long Does It Take to Learn to Use the Slate and Stylus?

How long does it take to learn to use a pen or pencil? This depends. It takes only seconds to learn how to hold the pencil and make a mark on a piece of paper. It takes a little longer to learn how to hold the pencil correctly when writing words and letters, and of course it takes much longer to learn how to print and write cursive correctly and legibly. It partly takes a good deal of time because the student is learning the letters while he or she is simultaneously learning to write them.

The same is true when learning to write Braille with the slate and stylus. The rudiments of using the slate and stylus can be learned in minutes. Proficiency in using the slate comes with months or years of regular practice and usage (as in the case of very young children). Remember, this is also true for sighted students learning to write with a pencil.

As a parent you may be wondering how fast you could learn to use the slate and stylus. The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children sponsors Beginning Braille for Parents workshops. In three hours parents learn the basics of reading Braille and writing it with the slate and stylus. They learn how to insert the paper into the slate frame, how to correctly hold the stylus while punching the dots onto the paper, how to use their fingers to guide the stylus and keep their place, and how to move the slate guide down the paper as needed. Then, as they learn Braille letters, they learn how to use the slate guide to punch in the correct dot positions for the desired letter. Parents leave the workshop feeling that Braille reading and writing is fun and easy! Many continue to study and practice Braille reading and writing on their own.

Of course not everyone can attend a workshop, so at the end of this guide is a list of manuals and other materials which may be used for independent home study of Braille and the slate and stylus.

Are There Any Differences between Learning to Use a Pen or Pencil and Learning to Use a Slate and Stylus?

Yes, but let’s first review how they are NOT different: Both systems, as discussed in the questions above, have the same function and advantages and get the job done equally well; both systems take about the same time to learn; and neither system is inherently any more difficult to learn than the other. Please keep these similarities in mind. In the long haul they are more important than the differences.

The differences between the methods of writing arise naturally out of the fact that one is a visual system and one is a tactile system. For example, most people learn to hold a pencil at a slant. But different hand and finger positions and motions are required for slate and stylus usage. For ease and efficiency in punching Braille dots, the stylus must be held in a straight up and down position. Also, punching dots onto a page requires slightly more force than is needed when writing with a pen or pencil. Teachers of blind children often encourage young blind children to play with pop-together toys because this activity develops strength and dexterity in the fingers. This dexterity is also required when opening the four-line pocket slate and repositioning the paper.

On the other hand, while sighted students must essentially learn four different ways of forming each letter of the alphabet-print upper-case, print lower-case, cursive upper-case, and cursive lower-case-blind children need to learn only one form for each letter. (As noted in the review of the Braille system at the beginning of this guide, a Braille word is capitalized by simply placing the Braille dot 6 before the letter to be capitalized. This is much simpler to learn than an entire new form for each letter.)

Finally, a person writing Braille with the slate and stylus begins at the right side of the paper and ends the line on the left, since the dots are being produced on the underside of the paper. Of course, the Braille reader reads from left to right, for the dots are then on the top side of the paper. Although this may seem a bit confusing, it need not be at all troublesome, since both reading and writing progress through words and sentences from beginning to end in the same manner.

If a blind student is confused and refers to writing with a slate as “writing backwards,” then incorrect teaching methods are likely being used. No respectable elementary teacher in the country, for example, would teach sighted students that a d is a backward b. Of course it is reversed, and of course students figure that out, and of course some students have a few problems because of it. However, correct teaching methods combined with lots of practice solve this difficulty. The same is true of learning to write with a slate and stylus.

When Should Blind Children Learn to Use a Slate and Stylus?

Blind people who started school anytime up to the late fifties or early sixties find this question amusing. Although the first mechanical Braille writing device was invented in 1850, Braille writers were not commonly available to blind students of all ages until after 1951-the year the modern Perkins Brailler went into production. In those early years Braille writing machines-if they were available at all-were used only by students in the higher grades, and one machine was shared by several students. So, what did blind first-graders use all those years before the Braille writer was invented or available to them? Why, the slate and stylus, of course! (This is still true, by the way, in developing nations where Braille writers are far too expensive for common usage.)

Some parents today are successfully experimenting in using the slate and stylus with their blind pre-schoolers. The children use the slate and stylus for the same purpose that sighted pre-schoolers use a pencil or other marker: to scribble. Just like a sighted child, a blind child may pretend that his or her scribbles-the Braille dots-are words or even pictures. This gives the child a positive experience with the slate and stylus so that when formal instruction begins they are comfortable with the slate and eager to learn to write real words with it.

Today, teaching manuals commonly recommend that the slate and stylus be introduced in the third grade. The author of one manual suggests that students do not need to begin formal instruction with the slate and stylus until entrance into middle school (sixth grade). Students should certainly begin no later than this.

As you can see, there is no consensus on the best time to begin writing instruction with a slate. It can be successfully taught at any time from kindergarten on up. Remember, however, that it is easier to gain the interest and cooperation of younger students. Also, slate and stylus skills should be firmly in place by the time the child is old enough to want and need a truly portable system of writing. If those skills are not in place, the child begins to be subtly excluded from certain activities.

Consider, for example, a typical meeting of a Girl Scout troop of girls grades 3 through 6. The troop is planning a camp-out. Each patrol within the troop is told to plan a menu for one of the meals, make a grocery list, and take the list to the store to buy the foods. They must also plan one activity-a skit, a game, etc.-for the camp-out. Before they begin planning, however, each patrol must choose one of the girls to be the patrol secretary to keep all necessary notes and lists. Slate and stylus skills would put a blind scout on an equal footing with her sister scouts in handling this necessary task for the group. She would also get early experience with one of the most common jobs in our society. Secretaries are needed everywhere-in business and in volunteer community organizations.

What Is the Best Method for Teaching the Slate and Stylus?

Although there are a few variations in approaches to teaching the slate and stylus all good teaching manuals adhere to the same basic principles. For example, all the best manuals insist that the word backward never be used when describing or teaching the slate and stylus method of writing. Instead, the authors of these manuals encourage phrases such as starting side or approach side; first column, second column; first side, second side; direction of travel; and so forth. This approach is essential for the best success.

Beyond this, a good teaching manual or method description should provide the following: (1) an explanation of the importance of building motivation and enthusiasm in the student through discussions and demonstrations of the usefulness of the slate and stylus; (2) a thorough description of the sequential steps to take in teaching the student how to physically manipulate the slate and stylus-i.e. inserting paper, holding the stylus, moving the paper down, locating the Braille cell window with the tip of the stylus, and so forth; (3) lesson plans or a sequential list of letters and words to be introduced to the student; (4) miscellaneous information about materials, equipment, and teaching aids; and (5) guidance and suggestions about promoting daily practice and use of the slate and stylus among students.

Listed below are some teaching manuals which meet these criteria. A few of these manuals were written primarily for teachers of newly blind adults. They have been included because parents might find them useful as self-teaching guides and because some of the methods and teaching aids they promote apply to children, too. Also included in this list are manuals or handbooks which include slate and stylus teaching instructions as a chapter or segment of that book. Page and/or chapter numbers are given with these listings.

Teaching the Braille Slate and Stylus
by Philip Mangold
Exceptional Teaching Aids
20102 Woodbine Avenue
Castro Valley, California 94546
(510) 582-4859 or 1 (800) 549-6999

Teachers’ Guide for the McDuffy Reader:
A Braille Primer for Adults
by Sharon L.M. Duffy
(“Teaching Slate Writing,” pp. 9-13).
National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
(410) 659-9314

Braille Writing Simplified
by Claudell Stocker
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children,
A Division of the National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
(410) 659-9314

Slate and Stylus Program from
Patterns: The Primary Braille Spelling and English Program, Level C
Hilda Caton, Director. Betty Modaressi, Editor.
American Printing House for the Blind
P.O. Box 6085
Louisville, Kentucky 40206-0085
(502) 895-2405 or 1 (800) 223-1839

Handbook for Itinerant and Resource
Teachers of the Blind and Visually Impaired
by Doris M. Willoughby and Sharon L.M. Duffy
(“A Braillewriter in My Pocket,” Chapter 18, p.135)
National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
(410) 659-9314 (Call after 12:30 p.m.)

What Kinds of Slates and Styluses Are Available, How Much Do They Cost, and Who Sells Them?

The typical pocket slate and stylus was described under the heading “What is a Slate and Stylus?” The pocket slate, as you will recall, can come either in plastic or metal. The plastic slates are the least expensive ($3.00, including the stylus), but are only available in the four-line, 28-cell-per-line size. They are also not as durable as the metal slates.

Metal slates are more expensive but are also available in a wide variety of sizes and styles to meet different needs. Some of these are note-card size slates (six-line, 19-cell), with or without a hinge; pocket slates (four line, 27 cell) with a notch for holding labeling tape; one line, 25 cell slates for labeling tape only; pocket slates with an open back so that the Braille can be read without removing the paper from the slate; slates designed exclusively for embossing cassette labels or playing cards; and board or desk slates. Prices vary among sources, of course, but will typically range from $8.00 or $10.00 for the single-line slate to $14.00 to $30.00 for the regular or specialty metal slates and up to $40 plus for desk or board slates.

The board slate, which is especially useful to Braille transcribers, comes in three pieces: a sturdy page-size writing surface (much like a clip-board) made of wood, plastic, or masonite board; a heavy-duty metal four-line, 41- or 27-cell slate; and a regular stylus. The board has a clip at the top to hold the Braille paper in place and matching holes down the right and left sides of the board. The slate is like a regular pocket slate with the addition of two small round pegs on the back side of the frame. These pegs, when inserted into the matching holes on the sides of the board, hold the slate firmly in place. When the student has completed four lines of Braille the slate is eased out of the holes and slid down to the next set of holes and so on until the page is full.

In addition to the regular stylus described earlier, there are styluses with a flat-sided handle to prevent rolling; pencil shaped styluses; and reversible metal styluses (flat or regular handles) in which the point may be removed and reversed for storage inside the handle. These vary in price from roughly $1.00 to $8.00.

Wooden or metal Braille erasers which flatten unwanted Braille dots are usually available in a price range from $1.00 to $3.00.