Over the past few months I’ve undertaken the challenge to improve the sight reading ability of my students and help the tutors in the Encore Music team to find new and creative ways to teach sight reading. As most of our students are children, this research – and this article – is child-centric but much can still be applied to older learners.
Broadly speaking, music literacy refers to the ability to read and write musical notation, whilst sight reading is the reading and performing of a piece of music written in music notation that the performer has not seen before. For me, a basic level of music literacy is needed before sight reading can be tackled, but very quickly the two become intertwined and can be developed in tandem.
But before I go any further, I want to challenge the term sight reading. It’s not reading, it’s playing.
I considered how students’ perception of reading impacts their perception of sight reading. Whilst some children are enthusiastic bookworms, many find learning to reading challenging and can perceive it as a chore. Children are asked to read quietly (perhaps in silence) whilst reminded not to fidget. In schools I have seen and heard teachers tell children who have misbehaved in class that they will miss playtime and must sit inside and read. As a parent, I too am guilty of unintentionally using reading as a punishment when I declare that there will be “no ipad today, you can read instead”. Is it any wonder that a child’s enthusiasm can dip as soon as we use the word ‘reading’? On the other side of the coin, children love to play.
So, at Encore Music, we have rebranded sight reading as playing at sight. This is not an easy transition to make when every resource has sight reading printed in big letters on the cover!
Reading the written word
When children learn to read the written word, they begin with phonics, move on to blended sounds and then start to read sentences and stories. These stories are generally short, engaging and grounded on a repetitive phonetic theme. The pages are small, the type-face is bold. And when the book has been read (however imperfectly) they move on to the next one. In my sons’ primary school the books were marked with coloured stickers to indicate difficulty level. Once they had mastered reading books at a particular level – not the same book over and over again - they were excited to move onto the next colour. Children read on a daily basis in a wide variety of settings including silent reading at school, guided reading with a teacher, shared reading at home with a parent, road signs, posters on buses, adverts on TV. And yet, becoming an accomplished and fluent reader takes years of practice.
Learning to read the written word is taught through structure with progression and variety reinforced through regular exposure. This conclusion formed the basis of my search for a better way to teach the reading of music notation and playing at sight.
Structure with Progression and Variety
At a recent professional development workshop, I outlined the value of using an established method for playing at sight:
Skills are progressive and build on existing knowledge.
Challenges are isolated and reinforced through repetition.
Gaps and omissions are avoided.
I also explored the importance of variety:
Different children learn in different ways and thus we need an arsenal of different resources.
Trudging through sight reading drills each week is uninspiring for both the student and the teacher.
Large method books don’t (generally) give children the sense of immediate achievement that motivates them.
Regular Exposure to Reading
There is a risk that teachers can spend so much time teaching the next hardest piece, and perfecting it, that students have little opportunity for reading independently or exploring different musical styles. Tackling pages of sight reading drills do not mitigate that risk. Playing ability can exceed reading ability. As a result, technical development is hampered by poor reading and reading development is hampered by memorisation. By giving children new – manageable and engaging – material each week, reading skills can be developed independently of playing skills. And success breeds enthusiasm, so if the students feel they are making measurable progress they are more likely to be willing to practice.
At the Music and Drama Education Expo in London in February 2018 I invested a significant part of my materials budget on sight reading resources to add to my already groaning shelves. I have since trialled these resources across a group of my students. Going back to the process of learning to read the written word I was looking for the musical equivalent of phonics, blended sounds, sentences and stories whilst providing structure with progression and variety, reinforced through regular exposure. These are my top picks and how I use them:
1) Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards (Julie Knerr, Katherine Fisher)
EARLY READING - IN LESSONS The musical equivalent of reading phonics and blended sounds.
I use these cards in lessons to help build notation awareness pre-Grade 1. They are available as flashcard style packs or digitally through the Superscore app for ipad.
The cards are small which reduces distractions on the page and gives students a regular sense of achievement as the pages turn frequently. The colour-coded sections provide a sense of progression. Each card offers variety in the form of right hand, left hand and rhythm patterns separated from pitch.
Level 1 covers seconds and thirds only and is centred around the landmark notes. Paired quavers feature early in the rhythmic exercises. Level 2 extends the range to fourths and fifths, starts in different places on the stave, includes sharps and flats and incorporates dotted rhythms. On completion of Level 2 students are well placed to tackle Grade 1 standard sight reading.
With early learners, I try to work through 2-4 cards each lesson (depending on the aptitude of the student) and through regular exposure my students are grasping the concept of landmark notes and musical shape more quickly.
7 year old Lucy says “I like to see how many cards I can do in 5 minutes. I look hard to see if the notes are going up or down or staying the same.”
2) How to Blitz Sight Reading (Samantha Coates & Michelle Madder)
COMPLETE METHOD – IN LESSONS AND FOR HOMEWORK The musical equivalent of reading sentences.
This is my new favourite method book for use in lessons and to set as homework. For me, this is a natural follow on from the Piano Safari cards. Coates & Madder offer a complete sight reading method up to Grade 5: Book 1 covers Grades 1 & 2, Book 2 covers Grades 3 & 4, Book 3 covers Grade 5. Each level contains five sections – for which a key sticker is awarded - followed by a test which earns a bunch of keys. And we all know how much children love stickers to celebrate success!
9 year old Adele told me: “Blitz is awesome. I like the stages, building up to playing. I start with clapping, then tapping both hands, then play. I want to earn the stickers. I like stickers.”
Within each level the following disciplines are addressed separately and then together:
Rhythm to melody
In the introduction, Coates encourages students to try some of each section, 3-4 times a week for about 5 minutes each time. The variety of activities is refreshing and practice seems to be on the rise amongst students using these books.
A word of caution: the books are very full and can fall apart if not given the respect they deserve. And the stickers are a bit fiddly (ripping a key did reduce one particularly sensitive student to tears!)
3) Improve Your Sight reading, A Piece a Week (Paul Harris)
INDEPENDENT READING - WEEKLY HOMEWORK The musical equivalent of reading stories.
I’ve long been a fan of “quick wins” or “one week tunes” for students to learn independently at home, encouraging regular reading and fostering confidence. A Piece a Week does just that, offering 25+ tunes with inspiring titles appropriately pitched in line with ABRSM Grades (currently available at Grades 1, 2 and 3). These books give the students an opportunity to play within their ability level and exposes them to a wide range of styles and idioms based on a small number of ideas.
8 year old Alex says “I thought reading music was really tricky. Actually it’s not so difficult and I’ve learned loads of new tunes by myself this term. Chasing Chickens is my favourite because I can play it really really fast.”
I work with the strategy that not every piece has to be played to perfection. It does not need to be memorised, but it does need to be read. I set up each piece in the lesson by highlighting or demonstrating any particularly challenging features and off they go. Amongst my students, practice has increased, pieces are learnt, reading has improved and confidence is on the up. I couldn’t be happier with these books and I’m excited to see the forth-coming Grade 4 book.
4) Specimen Sight Reading Tests (ABRSM)
EXAM PREPARATION The musical equivalent of standing in front of the class and reading out loud!
I’m sure these books need no introduction; they are certainly not new and are included here for completeness.
The Specimen Sight Reading Test books comprise a large selection (45+) of sight reading tests used in exams in 2009 which ensures they are perfectly pitched at the right exam level with appropriate challenges. These are ideal for use during the 6-8 weeks before the exam to familiarise the student with the realities of the tests. I strongly discourage the use of these books as a stand alone teaching method and recommend they are used only once the playing at sight skills of the student have reached the required level.
Putting theory into practice
One of my colleagues recently asked me how I have time to get through all this in lessons whilst still focussing on the technical skills, aural development, understanding theory and teaching pieces too. Quite simply, once I’d committed to incorporating playing at sight activities (either Piano Safari Cards or Blitz) into every lesson, along with a one week tune (from A Piece a Week) it became easy to do. I’m certain the other activities are progressing more quickly too, with less intervention from me; either because reading skills are stronger, or because more practice is happening, or perhaps both.
It will take time for these new strategies to take root, become established and for the students to shine – it will be interesting to review what progress has been made a year from now.