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.

1 thought on “Reader Question: Students who struggle with reading

  1. Hi, I completely agree that it’s so important when drilling note reading that the student plays the keys on the piano and doesn’t just name the notes, otherwise the staff doesn’t transfer to the keys, which is really the whole point! I have recently released a note reading app which listens to the student play each note on the piano to address this issue. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. It’s called Note Rush, see for details. 🙂

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