Writing Anywhere with the Slate and Stylus

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

The slate and stylus is the oldest, most portable, and most dependable tool for writing in Braille. It is often compared to the sighted person’s pen or pencil. It allows a blind person to write in braille in any environment.

Despite its advantages, use of the slate and stylus is often seen as difficult and unnecessary. Technological advances such as the Perkins Brailler and the various electronic braille input devices are seen as appropriate replacements for the slate and stylus. Because of these things, teaching of the slate and stylus is often neglected. Students who do not have access to note-taking devices and who wish to avoid disturbing others in class by using the Perkins brailler rely heavily on memory, tape recording, or other students’ notes. Yet with motivation and thoughtful planning, teachers can provide students with the skills and desire to use the slate and stylus well and thus become more independent.

Why Use the Slate?

The best reasons for using the slate can be illustrated by my own personal story. I was an avid journaler at the age of 13, and I was very excited about a two-week trip to summer camp. Having attended camp for several years in the past, I knew that campers would have a 90-minute rest period each day–and that I would spend most of that period tossing and turning. Some of my sighted cabinmates spent the time writing letters; but I had no such opportunity since I would need to dictate my letters. I thought dejectedly that if my brailler wasn’t so heavy and loud, I could use the time to write in my journal. In today’s terms, if my note-taker didn’t need a charge every night, I could use it to do my writing.

After much thought, I resigned myself to the challenge of learning to use the slate. It was not a new idea for me. I had tried in the past and had given it up as “too hard to write backward.” This time, my desire to write was stronger than my aversion to “writing backward.” I took a tablet of standard writing paper; and every day during rest period, I chronicled my camp adventures. The tablet lasted for many years as a precious keepsake and record of my personal accomplishment. I continued to use the slate and stylus in environments where I needed a quick way to take a few notes, jot down a phone number, or write when my technology was not working as it should.

But Isn’t This Writing Backward?

As I mentioned above, the concept of writing backwards confused me greatly when I first began writing with the slate and stylus. I have since learned that some people perceive braille differently with one hand from the other. I happen to be one of these people, and I am only able to read fluently with my left hand. When I write on the slate with the stylus in my right hand, I perceive the direction of text as forward. At her seminar in 1995, Sally Mangold and Linda Jones suggested that instead of presenting the use of the slate as “writing backward,” teachers always use dot numbers or “first side” and “second side” as references.

Edwin Zehner noted in a post to the Blindkid listserv that the print version of the Braille transcriber’s manual produced by the Library of Congress and used in many teacher training programs presented two visual examples of Braille. One is an example of Braille written on the Perkins Brailler and appears as it would be read on a page. The other is a representation of slate writing and is reversed. He noted that these presentations have a profound impact on the development of attitudes about the slate and stylus and proposed that instead of relying on them students use dot numbers to compose their work and check it after removing the paper and placing it Braille-side up.

Types of Slates

Slates come in various types and sizes, each with a different number of lines and cells. While a person can write on a small card using a large slate, it can be difficult to line the small card up properly. Using a smaller slate can be convenient and more comfortable. Some types include:

  • Desk slate, mounted on a clipboard so that the paper is held in place
  • Pocket slate, which comes from the American Printing House for the Blind and may also be purchased with special pocket-sized paper
  • Postcard slate: has six lines and is 19 cells wide.
  • One-line slate: for use with dymotape.

Slates can also be purchased with guide pins to help with alignment that face up or down while the writing side is exposed. Some slates, used by braille transcribers for correcting errors in copy, have no pins.

While some teachers and users recommend only using the standard stylus, it is also possible to purchase a stylus that is shaped like a pen and has an eraser at the end opposite the point. Other styluses have alternative handles for easier gripping. The type of stylus used is a matter of personal choice and often depends on how much a person uses the stylus and under what conditions. Some styluses lend themselves to more rapid use.

Loading the Paper

Some people load their paper so that the hinge of the slate is on the left as they write. Others load it so that the hinge is on the right. If there are holes in the paper, they should be on the right side while the student is writing so that the page faces correctly when read.

To load the paper, place the open slate on the table and insert the paper so that it is standing straight up. Close the slate. The edge of the paper should be aligned exactly with the hinge of the slate.

Some slates have pins at each of the top and bottom corners which hold the paper in place. When moving the slate down, the top pins can be inserted into the holes previously made by the bottom pins, and the alignment of the paper will be preserved. The interpoint slate has pins that face up while the writing side of the slate is exposed, and there are guide holes offset from the pins so that the stylus can be used to punch out guide dots for the pins on the other side of the page.

Note: The correction slate that transcribers use has no alignment pins. With practice, it is possible to learn to load this slate. If you are working with a correction slate, have patience and keep trying.

Lesson Plan for Teaching

When teaching a student to use the slate and stylus, it is important to build a positive attitude as well as skills. The following lesson plan is adapted from plans presented by Willoughby and Duffy (1989) and Mangold and Jones (1995).

  • Introduce the slate and stylus, allowing the child to examine it and explaining its use.
  • Write a line of full cells
  • Write a line of easy letters.
  • Write the alphabet.
  • Write combinations of letters.
  • Write short words, then longer words.
  • copy sentences from a Braille page.
  • Copy sentences from dictation.
  • Write original sentences.

In the beginning, practices should be short. Mangold and Jones (1995) suggest that two to five minutes is a good amount of time for beginners. As students become more confident and proficient in using the slate and stylus, they will be able to handle longer practices and, with good motivation, they will be able to use the slate and stylus to take notes in class and complete assignments.

Some people, even young children, take to the slate quickly. I once sat at the table with an eight-year-old who was experiencing reading fatigue with large print and was eager to learn contracted braille. Her teachers were hesitant and thought that she might be confused with two reading media. This is a common perception about children with low vision, especially when adults perceive that they use their vision well. I suspected that she had plenty of ability to cope with the two writing systems–she spoke three languages and was certainly not confused by this. When she saw me writing with my slate, she asked if she could try it. I gave it to her to see what she would do.

She produced a perfect sentence. Of course, I had not instructed her regarding the right to left conventions. I praised her for a great start and suggested that she start from the other end. She rewrote her sentence with no mistakes–and then began grilling me about contractions.

Obviously, such a child would not need the slow pace of the complete lesson plan outlined above. Plans are made for people, not people for plans. Sometimes, “the rules” need to be broken. Wisdom is in knowing when to break them. If a child is bored and doesn’t want to do the lesson, try something different.

Fun Slate Activities

These activities may help students build interest in using the slate and stylus.

  • Copy lyrics to their favorite songs.
  • Make a list of things they’d like for a birthday or Christmas.
  • Write a daily journal.
  • Write letters to a pen pal who is also a braille reader.
  • Teach a friend to use the slate and stylus and exchange notes.

If the student is tiring easily, try changing the writing position or the paper being used.

  • Experiment with different kinds of slates and styluses.
  • Experiment with different kinds of paper.
  • When using paper with punched holes, place the holes nearest the hinge of the slate.
  • Be flexible about the writing position.
  • If writing is interrupted, mark the place where it stopped.
  • If the place is lost, use the stylus to gently feel to determine which dots, if any, have been made.
  • Buy a slate and stylus case to keep track of supplies in a backpack or purse.
  • At first, make practices short and frequent.

References

Allman, C. B. (1998). Braille communication skills: What teachers teach and visually impaired adults use. Journal of visual impairment and blindness; 92(5), 331-337.

Mangold, S. and Jones, L. (1995). Pocket tools are never out of style! Presented at Getting in touch with literacy. Austin, TX.

Willoughby, Doris M. and Duffy, Sharon L. M. (1989). Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Baltimore: National Federation for the Blind.

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