Make Your Music Students Sight-read

A must for every music teacher.

Any tutor worth his or her salt already has systems in place for giving their students multiple access points to music literacy. Far beyond simple music performance (which I believe MOST private-lessons tutors stick to), teaching students to read music allows them to build skills in music as a second language. 

Who wouldn’t be proud of a student who could pick any book from a bookstore and read it? Why wouldn’t we want the same for students accessing books of pop music? Why not give students the tools they need to explore the scores of Mozart and Beethoven all on their own?

The question is, HOW do we accomplish this?

My experience as a music tutor and as a candidate for a Masters in Education has taught me that teaching music-reading skills are similar to teaching reading-reading skills.

There are a few main approaches to teaching reading. Here are some brief descriptions (Gunning 2016):


In regular literacy learning (books), an approach like this would be to teach the components of reading first. Then, these skills are developed into more and more complex tasks and levels of understanding. For example: learning the letters of the alphabet, then their sounds, then vowels and consonants, and finally putting sounds together to make words. Because this is technique-driven, it is a more high-stakes situation for the child: when performing the strung-together parts, those parts will either be accurate, or they won’t.


For this approach within literacy, a student is immersed in the material. A picture of this would be the non-verbal toddler listening to storytime, or a child sitting among adults who are engaged in conversation. This provides nuanced and effortless immersion in the language itself. The child will begin to experiment with communication through baby-babble and other sounds, showing engagement in the language process, and from there, beginning language skills will start to include predictions of dialogue, and inferences skills with the language. Instead of high-stakes, this approach involves zero stakes for the child: Nothing is asked of them, and nothing is assessed. They can just “do what they do.” This also has the benefit of including cute sound bytes that parents and teachers both treasure.


I would say performance-only music teachers are more of a bottom-up type, teaching pieces of musical technique followed by the method of how to string those techniques together to form a song. Or the opening of “Thunderstruck.” Entertaining? Sure! For some, this is all they need to feel fulfilled by music exposure.

Top-Down music teachers are likely those who run the church choir but do not teach any music theory, telling new members to go ahead and “jump in,” immersing themselves in the application of the musical language. They play the soprano notes on the piano, the sopranos listen and re-create, and so on through alto, tenor, bass.

Both approaches can be incredibly fun and rewarding!

Sight-reading comes in because it combines both approaches, and this is a good thing. After all, stringing techniques makes good technicians, not artists. Emoting meaningful sound produces great conceptual thinkers, but sloppy technique.

With sight-reading, students must apply the techniques they have previously learned whenever possible, and must do so at a moment’s notice. The advantage of this is that it has both assessment and evaluation built into this activity. This also bridges the things the teacher has already taught to new levels of meaning and material. Sight-reading also has the benefit from the top-down approach, as students will begin to notice patterns among intervals and chord progressions. After time, they will begin to be able to make predictions for where music is most likely to be going–or even for where they “feel” it “ought” to go.

The combination of these approaches is the INTERACTIVE COMPENSATORY APPROACH. It is probably easy to see how this model borrows methods from both previous approaches, filling in for weaknesses which the other lacks, and vice versa. (pg. 6)

This is a great argument to include sight-reading as a regular part of music lessons. It may seem awkward at first for the student, but the principle is sound: Just like students need to read books, musicians need to read music.

Are there intelligent people in the world who do not engage in reading or writing? Yes! But they aren’t literate. They’d have to read and write in order to be called literate, and they don’t so they aren’t. That’s what “literate” means. Literally.
So to review: Good? Sure! Literate? No.
Are there musical artists who make wonderful sound, who also do not engage in reading or writing music? Yes!
But they aren’t literate.

What kind of music students do you want to produce?
What kind of music student do you want to be?
What kind of music lessons do you think are worth the money?
And which approach is best for you?


Gunning, T. (2016). Creating Literacy Instruction For All Students. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *