Rethinking How We Teach Beginners Sight Reading: 5 Pitfalls To Avoid

Rethinking How We Teach Beginners Sight Reading: 5 Pitfalls To Avoid


We music teachers already know the value of being a great sight reader, as it leads to many open musical doors. In the trenches, however, we see students who have note reading issues struggling with one or more of the following: frustration, embarrassment, demotivation, and even desire to quit. To state the obvious, practicing sight reading is a different skill from learning repertoire. For example, a student might take weeks or months learning a Beethoven Sonata, while his sight reading abilities are at a standstill a few levels down. “That’s because sight reading is a separate skill that needs to be practiced separately,” says Samantha Coates, respected Australian teacher and author of Blitzbooks piano book series. Do you recognize any of these pitfalls when it comes to teaching sight reading?


Pitfall #1. “Every Good Boy May Not Deserve Fudge.” Teaching mnemonics (letter-word associations) often delays reading skills and is confusing for several reasons. If you do teach this way, it’s likely that you, like me, also learned to read using this approach. Try Landmark Notes! Landmark Notes (or guide notes) are points of reference that are first introduced and reinforced before learning the other notes on the Grand Staff. Long term, this cuts reading response time, compared to the habit of counting up the alphabet on music staff. The most common introductory Landmarks are Middle C, Bass F, and Treble G. Next, is often the 3 C’s. The others are introduced according to the teacher’s preference.


Pitfall #2. Focus On Note Naming. Of course, just as you and I have a name, a necessary part of our identity, notes also have names which exist only to simplify communication. It’s great to use fun studio games and theory worksheets which spell note names, but remember that we’re not trying to produce great note spellers; we’re trying to produce fluent sight readers. While you think about that point for a second, we’ll segue into the next closely related point….


Pitfall #3. Staying Single For Too Long. No, this isn’t about your personal life. I’m actually

talking about about spending too much time drilling individual notes. Whether it’s those flashcards sitting inside your piano bench, or that cute Grand Staff board you made from Pinterest (which you should absolutely use), spending too much time on single notes before introducing interval patterns, like 2nds, 3rds, etc., may not be as productive as you think. The ability to recognize intervals and patterns quickly is an essential bridge to fluid sight playing skills, identifying chords, musical patterns, and transposing. These components, along with foundational rhythm learning, become the building blocks to great sight reading.



Pitfall #4. Stuck in the 20th Century. Are there modern tools that you could use to help students avoid some of these earlier pitfalls? Yes! One of them is called Note Quest, a flashcard app which includes Landmark Notes and interval patterns. Unlike paper flashcards where there is no teacher at home to check accuracy, Note Quest hears them play and gives real-time feedback. Parents and teachers are saying it’s been a great motivational boost for their students entering this formative stage of learning piano. Teachers and students enjoy using this tool for even just 3 minutes at a time during lessons when a quick “pick me up” might be needed, because most of the drills are only 1 minute long. **Teachers, if you haven’t already joined our mailing list, please join from the website and be the first to be informed of new updates and exciting features!


Pitfall #5. Sticking To The Page. If reading is a struggle, try giving doses of rote pieces to lighten things up. How does it work? The teacher simply introduces a piece through patterning and demonstration, beginning with small chunks. Then, the student learns through an active back & forth session with her. This exercises interactive ear training and spatial awareness on the keys. Often a welcome tool for students who play well by ear or for total beginners, rote pieces can also reinforce note reading. In this “reverse” method, after learning a piece by rote, students are asked to connect the notation to what they just played. Watch for “aha!” moments. Paula Dreyer has a series of beautiful rote books called Little Gems for Piano. Piano Safari also integrates rote pieces as a part of their method. Rote pieces make good recital selections for young students because they often explore the outer registers of the piano (which, of course, sounds more impressive).



For every person who calls us ‘teacher,’ for every person who learns to read music independently with our help, we could consider ourselves lucky seed planters. Reading music is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is a tip that opens up a world of options for lifelong musicians.


“Music can change the world because it can change people.” – Bono of U2

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