Rebecca Pennington - featured image

Strategies for Emerging Readers

This year my son is a first grader.  I am learning that first grade is an exciting time in the development of reading skills.  Already I have noticed that he is growing tremendously as a reader.  I am thankful for his wonderful teacher who is helping him to develop these skills.  The teacher in me, has been fascinated by how the skills used to develop emerging readers of text can translate into work at the piano.


  1. Sight Words


Every trimester we have a list of words that are commonly used in reading.  These words are supposed to be practiced frequently at home to build a “library” of words that are easily recognized.  Sometimes I have heard them referred to as “popcorn words” because they should roll of the tongue like popcorn.  These words are practiced often at school and we are encouraged to practice them at home as well.  We always are building on the words that have already been completed—our list continues to grow.  The teachers are always encouraging families to find ways to make practicing these words fun.  My son’s kindergarten teacher often used the phrase, “make it fun, make it snappy.”  They have suggested ways to make the practice fun, using games, or tactile practice of the words.


In piano, this is similar to flashcards.  Our students can start with just a few flashcards and build to adding more and more flashcards.  For the first few years of study, students should practice the flashcards regularly in their lesson, and also at home.  We teachers can help the at home practice by suggesting creative ways to practice these common notes and work toward greater speed and fluidity in recognizing them.


  1. Fluency Binder


My son has what is called a fluency binder.  This folder is filled with poems—a new poem is given each week.  He is supposed to say the new poem each day at home and also repeat a few of the old poems from previous weeks.  The goal is to build fluency in reading through repetition and rhyme.  Many of the poems studied have been beyond his actual reading ability, but because of the rhymes he has been able to learn them both aurally and through looking at the words.


The piano correlation to the fluency binder would be rote pieces.  Rote pieces are such an important part of piano study.  They allow the student to build fluency at the instrument without struggling to read the notes.  Another parallel to the fluency binder would be having students continue to play older pieces in their repertoire.  At The New School we often have students complete “Repertoire Lists” in which they keep track of pieces that are learned and continue to play these pieces at home.


  1. Independent Reading


Each day in school, a portion of the reading time is devoted to independent reading.  The students have a little box with 10 books that they use to read during this time each day.  Each week they choose a new set of books for their box At the beginning of the year, the teacher explained the purpose of the book box.  She told us that the level of the books in the box would be slightly lower than the level they might be working on with the teacher.  They read and reread the books at this independent level, sometimes with a partner.  The reading at this level helps them to increase fluency and propels them to the next level.


The correlation to the piano lesson is that students should always be working at pieces that are at an independent, or “on own” level.  This likely may be a level below the music that is carefully prepared and introduced in the lesson.  The student should be able to read the notes and rhythms accurately on their own, and can learn these pieces without frustration.


This year, I have been working with a piano student who I would call a “reluctant reader.”  The student experiences reading challenges in school and is not confident about reading music.  I made it a goal to assign at least one piece each week that is an “on own” piece.  At the beginning of the year, my student did not want to try any portion of the piece on his own.  We moved slowly through the pieces, gradually encouraging him to try more on his own.  At this point in the year, he is perfectly confident being sent home with a piece that is a level below his reading level.  I know that he will return with accurate notes and rhythm. Consequently, he has become much more adept at learning the pieces at his level more quickly and easily.  All of this is improving his confidence in playing and as a result he is feeling pleased with the success he is experiencing at the piano.


In many ways, learning to read music is much like learning to read the printed word.  Both take time, patience, and much work.  I am thankful for my son and his wonderful teacher for giving a new picture of breaking down the skills needed for my piano students to become fluent readers of music.



Building a Strong Foundation

I was considering whether or not I should post a blog during the summer. After thinking about it, I decided to go ahead and write at least one or two blogs.  Even though many teachers are on vacation, some of you may be spending your free time reading and listening to music as I am doing. Before I begin, let me bring you up to date.  Over the past couple of months, I have given a brief but hopefully, interesting summary of classroom instruction for the course, “The Teaching-Learning Process and the Piano Teacher.” Today’s blog is the third posting for this class.


Continue reading “Building a Strong Foundation”

Reader Question: Reading intervals vs. note naming

If you teach interval reading, how do students become fluent at note- naming?

There was a general consensus in our meeting that teaching students to read by intervals, instead of mentally naming each note, is an effective way to help students become fluent readers.  Tracy Grandy pointed out that in the forward to “ABC Papers ” (published in 1947), Frances Clark wrote of her goal to promote fluency in reading groups of notes.  What happens when students do not see patterns of notes, but just read each individual note, without seeing the relationship between the notes?  Reading can be labored and sluggish.  Students who read this way can also tend to reverse the clefs (for example reading Bass F as “D”).  Some methods stress a positional approach to reading.  Our experience is that students who learn to read by positions have difficulty “believing” that finger 2 can play middle C, or finger 3 can play Treble G.  In other words, the “positional” approach doesn’t always transfer to the “real world” of music reading, where any finger can play any note.

Though there are many benefits to the intervallic approach to reading, teachers who have explored this approach may find that students take too long in finding starting notes of pieces.  Typically, intervallic methods teach “landmark” notes first, and subsequent notes relate to these landmarks.    The students may find the landmark notes quickly, but then take more time with non-landmark notes.


Some helpful ideas:

1)     First, we must manage expectations.  Parents and teachers may need a dose of patience.  It takes time to become fluent in note-reading.  This will not happen instantly.   Our eventual goal will be for students to be able to play each note, without thinking about its relationship to the landmark, but this takes time and experience.


2)     Second, a “no-fishing zone: ”   Students must start with hands in lap, think about the starting notes, and go directly to position.  “Fishing” for notes, without thinking first, leads to insecurity.


3)  Third, in-lesson drills can be so helpful.  Some students develop quick note-recognition without drills, but in-lesson note-identification activities can be so helpful.  In fact, we have found that in many cases, students will not even need to use note-identification drills outside of the lesson if weekly reinforcement is provided in the private lesson.  Marvin Blickenstaff uses 37 flashcards each week, timed at each lesson.  At first, the student must state the “official” name of the note:  “Treble G, down a second, F.”  Emily Lau builds a library of flashcards right from the start.  First, the only flashcards will be the landmarks.  Each time new notes are introduced, the student adds these notes to their flashcard library.  Students write the “answers” of each flashcard on the back,  under the supervision of the teacher.  This activity is shown in the video below:

Another flashcard activity that Amy Glennon recently used in group class at the American Boychoir School:  Students were given flashcards of landmarks and 2nds away from landmarks.  Each student placed his card on a table in order from lowest to highest.  Students then chanted the names of each card with 3 seconds inbetween, 2, 1, and “zero.”  Next, the cards were scrambled and students repeated the activity.  In addition to flashcards, very short sight-playing examples put these notes into context.  “Reading Flashes” can be spread out on the music rack.  An example of a reading flash would be just 4 notes, Treble G, A, B, A.  Students play each short example.  Next, the teacher can mix up the order of the cards and the student will play each card again, with just 4 pulses between each example.


The faculty also discussed a common stumbling block when teaching the intervallic method.  When students enter the early-intermediate level, they learn that  intervals within the hand are not always played with the expected fingers.  For example, a third might need to be played with fingers 1 and 2, instead of fingers 1 and 3, or that a 4th is played with fingers 1 and 3.  An exploration of why these alternate fingers are used in the context of the piece will be helpful.  Also, the “take a trip” activity (C up a 3rd, down a 2nd, etc.) can be modified to include more unusual fingerings:   “Thumb on G, start, up a 5th with finger 4…”  Reading flashes with these irregular fingerings will help the student get used to this new look and feel.  Some good examples of this idea can be found in Four Star Sight Reading (Berlin/Markow, Frederick Harris Music).


Finally, it is easy to forget how very much is involved in music reading.  There are a lot of “moving parts” involved in reading music.  Patience and persistence will yield good results, as long as we continue to reinforce note recognition skill at each lesson.

Reader Question: Students who struggle with reading

“I have a student in Music Tree 2A who is really struggling with reading, to the point I feel like she is regressing.  What sideways steps would you take?  She’s always been a little slower than other students, but it hasn’t seemed to matter much to her until now.”

From Amy Glennon:


Sometimes it is helpful to break down each element of sight-playing, in order to find out where things are breaking down.  Two elements that come to mind:

1)  Note identification

Note identification:  note-naming drills are common activities in piano lessons.  Lately, computer-based programs are popular.  My concern with these kinds of programs is that the student is often not asked to play the note, just to identify the note.  Old-fashioned flashcards can work.  Below please find a video showing an activity with flashcards:

2)  Interval recognition:

Interval activities away from the repertoire can be very useful.  One such activity, “Take a trip,” can be done in three ways, which will allow the teacher to see if there is a breakdown in the understanding of intervals:

a) “Take a trip” on the keys:  The teacher instructs the student to play intervals on the keyboard (“start, up a 2nd, down a 3rd, etc.”).  The student plays these patterns without looking at notation.  The video below illustrates this activity:

b) Take a trip on the staff:  The teacher draws intervals on the staff and the student names the interval and direction, without playing

Take a trip - notation

c) “Take a trip” on the staff: student plays each note and says the interval as he or she plays.


With these three versions of “take a trip,” the teacher is often able to learn about strengths and weaknesses in the student’s understanding of intervals.  If the student can play the intervals without notation, but struggles with the notation alone, the teacher learns that more interval drills on the staff are needed.


If interval recognition needs reinforcement, one collection by Jon George might be helpful:  “Musical Moments, Book 1” (Alfred Music).  This collection reviews the concepts found in Music Tree Part 1 and other similarly leveled collections.  The rhythms are simple, but the intervals often provide the challenge.

Focusing  on the student’s strengths during this period of difficulty with reading can boost the student’s confidence.  Often, a student who struggles with music reading has a strong ear.  Rote pieces can be effective supplements.  Some examples:  “Solo Flight” by Elivina Truman Pearce (Alfred Publishing) and “Be a Star” by Costley/Ed. Marlais (FJH Music).

Improvisation and composing activities, in addition to being enriching and fun, can also be a way to reinforce reading concepts.  For example, a student might be asked to compose a piece that uses broken and blocked 4ths.


From Rebecca Pennington:

It is often helpful to find supplementary material that coves material at the same level but in a different way.  Some great supplemental options are Side By Side, Book 2A (or book 1 for added review), 2 at 1 Piano Book 1, or Keyboard Kaleidoscope Book 1, both by Jon George.   All offer an intervallic reading approach but some varied musical options at the same time.

At a time like this I try to remind myself of something Frances said about never sending a student home without being successful with all elements on their assignment.  I find it is very helpful to really pare down the assignment to ONLY things that the student is successful with and spend more time working on concepts and drills in the lesson.


1. FEEL: Does the student connect the interval he is reading with the feel beneath the hands?  Have the student do “eyes closed” drills in which you have him play the intervals you call out without looking.

2. Short sight-reading examples: Create short examples for the student that use only 2nds, then add 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths once each step has been mastered.

3. The “pared-down” reading assignment can be enhanced by special warmups or rote pieces, designed to teach the musical elements that the student it working on.  This will help keep musicality and joy in the lessons, even while the focus is on reinforcing reading skills.