My British Lit students translated a poem into Braille

… and cultivated empathy and admiration for the visually impaired

At the conclusion of our short unit on the English poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I decided to do something totally different. We had spent a few days reading, discussing, and answering questions about the poem and its story about the Fall of Man. After these activities, it felt like it was time to move on, but I did want to spend a couple more days working in a creative way with the text.

To do so, we produced a few passages of Paradise Lost in Braille and then asked a fourth grader at our school, Finley Mabary, who is visually impaired, to visit our class to check our work.

Students read Braille text of John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Fourth-grader Finley Mabary, who is visually impaired, reads lines from Paradise Lost that had been produced in Braille by my seniors.

I’m not sure where the idea to reproduce some poetry in Braille came from, but it seems that I had read about World Braille Day on January 4, which is also the birth anniversary of the code’s French inventor, Louis Braille. Braille, published his military-inspired system of dots in 1829 at the age of fifteen. Here’s the video we watched in class at the beginning of the activity:

When I first brought up the project idea to my students, they were on-board. Even though they had all heard of Braille, they didn’t know anything about how to create it. However, by the end of the project, it was fun to hear them start to recognize the dot patterns for some of the most frequently used letters codes and to hear them identify the individual dots by numbers one through six.

As for myself, I’ve always possessed a curiosity about Braille. I distinctly remember seeing a Braille card at the public library in my hometown. All those raised dots intrigued me and to this day, I run my fingers over those six-dot cells whenever I notice them next to a hotel door, on an elevator, or at a archaeological site like this one we saw two years ago in Delphi, Greece.

A historical marker in Braille in Delphi, Greece.
You’ll find Braille around the world. I was intrigued by this historical marker at the archaeological site in Delphi, Greece during a trip there during the summer of 2019.

My first step in the project was to purchase some Braille slates. I ordered three two-packs of this style. They cost $13.99 for each two-pack, including shipping. Each slate comes with a stylus for punching the dots.

Braille slates

I experimented with the slate and stylus before bringing them to school for students to use. I quickly realized that this would be more involved than I initially thought it would be.

I watched this video from the National Federation of the Blind to learn how to use the slate and stylus.

Things got complicated

If you watch the video, you’ll see how this project quickly became more challenging than I initially thought.

Since you’re embossing dots into the paper, you must work “backwards.” The paper you’re impressing will be turned over when it’s removed from the slate, so you must emboss the words from right to left on the slate. To compound the complexity, one must also “flip” the dots in each cell so when the paper is turned right side up, the dots read correctly.

Learning Aid in Braille and Typography | SpringerLink
I made several copies of this handout from the National Braille Press for students to reference as they reproduced lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I decided to make a special graphing sheet for students to use as they embossed their lines from Paradise Lost. The sheet basically allows students to plan out their words and dots beforehand and then also check their work before even starting to emboss or “punch” the cardstock paper. This short video explains how the graphing sheet works.

Over the course of two class periods, students used the graphing sheet to plan out and emboss their lines from Paradise Lost in Braille.

The room was quiet as students worked

During the project, my students were engaged and the room was silent with concentration as they worked. Without a doubt, writing backward and reversing cells of dots was tedious and time-consuming!

Here’s the bulletin board I made at the completion of the project. The board displays the two lines of Paradise Lost that each student reproduced in Braille.

Bulletin board with Braille excerpts created by high school students

Once students finished embossing with the stylus, they cut out their lines and then mounted them on construction paper. Then they handwrote or typed out those same lines in English (as a sort of key) and attached them under the Braille sheet.

Elementary students read Braille created by high school seniors.
Finley Mabary and his brother Ralph enjoyed visiting my high school seniors to check their Braille translations.

The final step was inviting Finley Mabary, his brother Ralph, and their mother Ashley, to my classes to try their hands at reading the Braille.

To read Braille, the pads of Finley’s index fingers work in unison to feel their way, cell by cell, over each word. He holds his right index finger stationary alongside his left index finger to keep it aligned on the row of cells. His left finger is the one that actually decodes all those dots.

For the most part, my seniors produced some admirable and readable coding. Yes, there were mistakes. For example, some of the letters were incorrect. Some of the one-dot cells that denote capital letters had been inadvertently omitted. Also, our punctuation wasn’t 100 percent, but for an initial introduction to this global coding system, I think they did pretty well.

John Milton dictating to his daughters the text of Paradise Lost.
This engraving shows John Milton dictating to his daughters. | Photo: CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Did you know?

The famed poet John Milton (1608-1674) became blind at the age of 43. He dictated his most well-known poem, Paradise Lost, to others, including his daughters as shown in the engraving above. Paradise Lost was first published in 1667.

Encyclopedia Britannica

In addition, Ashley Mabary said that visiting the seniors was a real treat for Finley and Ralph whose impressive Braille-reading skills are growing quickly.

On the left is a closeup of one’s student’s two lines from Paradise Lost. In the image on the right, you can see the translation.

If only empathy were a standard

No, producing Braille text does not meet an English or ELA standard in my classes, but if empathy for the visually impaired were a standard, my students would have mastered it for sure!

Overall, my students were intrigued by trying something new and were surprised at the complexity of this task. In addition, they seemed to enjoy the break from the day-to-day reading and writing that makes up a large portion of my British Literature classes.

Want to try it?

The next time you need a break from the regular routine, consider introducing your students to Braille to expose them to something new.

If you’d like a copy of the worksheet I made for this project, please leave me a comment on my contact page or leave a comment below. I’ll be glad to help you do this project with your own students.


Try this new poetry lesson!

Enter your email in the box below and I’ll send you this PDF file you can use tomorrow to show your students how to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

Image shows readers the paper I'll send for signing up for my email list. The handout gives instructions for a Treasured Object poem.
Treasured Object Poems

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Published by Marilyn

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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