Teaching Kids to Sight Read on the Piano… Stop Pulling Teeth and Start This Instead!

I have a stack of levelled sight reading books in my studio. And they bug me. They bug me because they are taking up a ton of space on my book shelf, and while buying yet another shelf would give me a great excuse to make the trip to Ikea (yay!)  I’d prefer to fill my new Borgsjö bookshelf with more useful material. And I don’t consider these books to be useful.

But I have trouble recycling anything that contains music notes…

While I used to rely on these babies to enable me to mentally say “Sight reading… Done!  Boo Yeah!”… they are no longer a part of my studio. Well, they are a part of my studio. They’re the part that bugs me at the moment.

Teaching Sight Reading to Kids… Without Those Books

No matter how exciting or relevant I tried to make those sight reading books, the kids would look at me like I had just suggested they chew on a jellyfish.  To say they considered the process distasteful is an understatement.

I tried to jazz it up with stickers, highlighters, lots of “theory on the page”-type teaching and even took their side and grouched right along with them about how boring these books were. But not a lot of learning was really happening.  Because there’s a difference between completing activities vs. learning.

The relevancy factor was missing.   And so was any sense of fun.

But don’t worry.  Teaching your piano students to sight read doesn’t have to mean hours of prep time, a whole new teaching strategy or even any extra room on your bookshelf.  My fundamental approach to sight reading is what I call the “FAST method”.  Once your piano kids are happily using the FAST approach use the following 4 sight reading activities to make this process much more meaningful using music from any source you think would be motivating.

1.  Do or Dive Day

Kids like the sound of this one.  I think it’s funny too.  I have a chart in my studio that some may consider to be dreadful but my piano students adore it.  It’s simple:  I get to choose two lines of any piece, they have to sight read it.  Less than 3 mistakes means they “Do”.  More than 3 mistakes means they “Dive”.  If they “Do” they stay safe.  If they “Dive” it means their little stick man emblazoned their name takes the plunge from the safety of the shore into the shark infested waters on my chart.  They love checking which of their friends ended up as shark bait each week.

2.  Echo

This activity doesn’t even involve playing but it really strengthens their reading skills.  I choose two lines of a piece about 2 levels above where they comfortably play.  In turn, we follow first the treble and then the bass line naming one note each back and forth as fast as we can with no pauses.  It goes a little something like this Me: “A”  Student:  “Bb”  Me:  “C”  Student:  “D#”  Me: “G” etc.  Involve a timer and it gets exciting.  Really… it does.

3.  Go Go Go Stop!

Choose a sight reading piece for your student and have them begin playing.  At random intervals shout “Stop!”.  They then stop where they were and continue playing from a measure you point to.  Switch it up.  Skip ahead 8 measures.  Go back 3 measures.  This gives them the fantastic ability to think on their feet and pick up at any point in a piece.  Sometimes I’m really tricky and even switch pieces on them mid-way.

4.  Name That Tune

Once a month it’s Name That Tune Sight Reading Day.  I quickly notate a song (use Finale or MuseScore to publish it) using the chorus or most recognizable part of a Top 40 hit.  I mash 3 of these Top 40 songs together (but don’t put the titles!).  My piano students have to sight read the mashup and then name the 3 tunes.  This is a major favourite.  Sometimes it’s all they practice for the week.  We’re working on that one :)

Teaching kids to sight read on the piano doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth.  Try these 4 ideas and the only teeth you’ll be seeing are the ones inside big grins.

Sometimes, inspiring your kids to practice can also be like pulling teeth. If this strikes a chord with you, consider checking out our resource, SHHHH… Your Piano Teacher Thinks This Is Practice. It is an awesome tool, jam-packed with 88 activities guaranteed to get your piano kids pumped about piano practice!

23 Responses to Teaching Kids to Sight Read on the Piano… Stop Pulling Teeth and Start This Instead!

  1. Donna says

    I have a question about idea #4. Do you send this piece home with your student to practice after they have played it for you during the lesson? I love your ideas and I completely agree with you about the sight reading books! They are mostly boring, boring, boring! Thanks for all your innovative approaches to teaching piano! I’m sure your students LOVE coming to their piano lessons!

    • says

      Hi Donna – it only goes home because they beg for it :) It’s fun for them to have just a little snippet of something cool. Just like guitar players who play just one little awesome riff from a song, it’s nice for piano students to have just a few lines that sound amazing (like the intro to Viva la Vida by Coldplay for example).

  2. Bev Conway says

    I too am working hard on sightreading and appreciated your ideas. I have a vast majority of Asian students who don’t seem to know any of the “cool” songs I want to give them. They don’t even know classic children songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” etc. It really stifles my creativity (smile)

  3. Jackie says

    I don’t like traditional sightreading books either, and almost never use them. I usually use a different series of method book or other supplementary materials. Thanks so much for these activities. What a great way to spice up a lesson!

  4. says

    Love the ideas! Question:how do you keep track of what kids are listening to? Do your students really know top 40 hits? There’s so much music out there, I can’t keep track of it or even figure out what age group is listening to what! I try to educate myself but get lost.

    • says

      Hi Alice – if you Google “Billboard Top 40” it will give you an idea. Another idea is to just ask the kids who they are listening to! Most kids age 9 and up have their ear tuned into the pop scene and they’ll recognize the main “hook” of the top 40 songs. There is a wide variety, you’re right! I go with the top 10 usually as they are the most widely-known.

  5. says

    I have a small library of fun books like Disney and movie themes. They check these out and see how long it takes them to sight read the whole book (they are the little skinny books). For every book they sight read, they get to choose a funky little button that they glue on the brim of their sailor hats. The buttons are awarded at each recital. The hats represent smooth sailing and that sight reading will get them anchored for playing new songs quickly!

    I LOVE these ideas and will add them to my sight reading program. I will use the book they checked out and have some fun! “Do or Dive” I LOVE it!

  6. says

    I have a student who dislikes sight-reading. He is engrossed with music theory, however. (I suspect he is also ADD, although the mention of that caused his parents to bristle.) He has the same approach to piano as did my son who is now 38, and was just diagnosed with ADD.

    So, I took a simple four-part song, like a Sunday School song, for example, and we went through it reading and analyzing the chords. I suggested he focus on the intervals that were present/written while thinking of the chord, and find them on the piano. It was neat to see him respond positively when he was correct.

    The second suggestion is to have the student pick out and play/find the notes of an excerpt of a familiar melody to him/her. Then, write those melody notes on a staff. Of course, I need to assist in the rhythmic notation, but the entire process gets him to read/know the notes going in the back door.

    The next step is to have him play what he wrote, and then put up an excerpt of a different, but similar melody in the same key and meter, and similar chord progression, and have him read it.

    I have also not shied away from telling him that he simply must learn to sight-read on some level if he wants to feel confident when approaching music or making music with others. I explained that even though my daughter is a digital photographer, she sought to learn how to develop her own film pictures so she could say she understood all about photography.

    The net effect of this back and forth approach to sight-reading is that the student ends up with some measure of ownership of the process. So far it’s working.

  7. says

    These ideas sound fun! We are using “Nuts About Note Reading” with Sheldon for our sight-reading this year. My kids love it and ask for it each week.

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