Questions surrounding how to best help dyslexic learners in your piano studio is one of the most common questions we receive.. and probably rightly so! Statistics show us that 1 in 5 children have a language-based learning difficulty and dyslexia is the most common of these challenges.
For piano teachers, who don’t normally receive any sort of training in how to work with learning difficulties, dyslexia can often show up in ways that we wouldn’t normally expect. It’s not just about reversing numbers or reading backwards.
So, as you are very likely to come across a piano student who has dyslexia, here our our top 10 strategies for helping him or her to achieve success in their piano lessons.
Top 10 Reminders When Teaching Piano to Dyslexic Learners
1. Avoid assuming that slow progress is simply due to lack of effort. Sometimes our most frustrating students who appear to never practice, who lose focus in lessons and who forget instructions almost immediately may be dealing with something more than just behavior issues (or those behavior issues are caused by a learning-challenge that creates frustration).
2. Children with dyslexia often have difficulties with short-term auditory memory. This should govern both the way you give instructions, but also how much of their music they can “take in” at one time. Speak slowly and keep your directions simple and to a minimum of 2 items at a time. “Take your 1 finger and put it on C”. Then wait. Don’t add in information about rhythm, what the left hand is doing, dynamics etc.
In addition, keep the sections of music you work on to small chunks that will eventually be put together. Break everything you say or do into small and easy-to-memorize bits of information or material.
3. Watch your levelling carefully. Keep his feelings of success in tact by avoiding anything too challenging before he is 100% ready. Just because his method book says your student should now learn about flats doesn’t mean that he is ready. Use lots of supplementary material to really solidify his abilities before moving into more difficult concepts so his self-esteem stays high.
4. Use a dyslexic-friendly font for lesson notes and type them out instead of writing them by hand (and use this font for any worksheets, game cards etc). Find opensource dyslexic-typeface here. It’s fine to use for all students – but is especially helpful to those who may be dyslexic.
5. Make use of senses other than just visual. Find multi-sensory ways of engaging his sense of touch; quarter notes can be drawn on a salt-table, created out of playdough, tapped on a drum etc.
6. Use color as cues on his page instead of written words. For example, a green circle could mean two beats instead of writing 1-2 on their page. An orange star could mean a hand-position change etc.
7. Keep his piano binder tidy and use post-it tags to mark which pieces he is supposed to practice at home. Organization and simplicity is key to successful home practice. Keep weekly tasks to a maximum of 3 and write them (preferably in the font mentioned above) clearly in his binder.
8. Continually take stock of his successes and weaknesses. Do you notice a trend in what is difficult? Focus in on these difficulties (in a positive way) and find multi-sensory ways of helping him to break through these challenges.
9. Maintain routines in your lesson time. Follow the same progression of tasks each and every lesson but find the variety kids crave in how you approach each of those tasks.
10. Above all else, stay positive. Having a learning difficulty affects more than just a child’s learning. It can also affect his self-esteem and overall enjoyment of activities. For just a taste of what the written world could look like for a dyslexic child, try to read the paragraph below.
What to Do About Un-diagnosed Dyslexia
As piano teachers we are often put in the awkward position of picking up on a learning challenge that may have gone unnoticed in other areas of the child’s life. Suggesting to a parent that their child may have a learning difficulty is never easy. However, for the best interests of the struggling child it is always a good idea to bring your observations to a parents’ attention. Choose your wording carefully, and avoid “labels” like ADHD or dyslexia when first bringing your concerns to the parents, but do pass on what you’ve observed and keep an open dialogue going as the student progresses.
Remember… you can apply all of the 10 strategies above to any struggling child in your studio as many of these strategies help children with other learning difficulties (or without!) as well.