v. 1, no. 2/May 1, 1998


Teaching Sight-Reading at the Piano: Methodology and Significance

by Dianne Hardy

The Diagnostic Prescriptive Sight Reading Program

My Diagnostic/Prescriptive Sight-Reading Program (DPSRP) consists of a sight-reading test of thirty pieces that contain the music concepts taught from prep or beginning level books up through level five literature. A chart detailing the type and frequency of possible errors makes it relatively easy to diagnose students and place them in appropriate sight-reading levels. The DPSRP also presents a study plan for the remediation of errors with four basic levels of reading being established and procedures for each of the levels outlined. A student checkout sheet allows the teacher to keep track of what music has been assigned at each level of reading.

Diagnostic/prescriptive testing is testing in such a way that specific kinds of errors can be identified and subsequently remedied. The teacher tests and then follows up with a reading program based on materials that specifically address the test errors. To administer the test the teacher begins where (s)he feels the student can easily read and then works upward with the student playing piece after piece while the teachers observes the reading and charts the errors. (S)he ends the test when the student makes several errors on a piece or breaks the rhythmic flow.

The teacher then draws the Independent or lowest level wherever that piece is and the goal here is fluency. Music for this level is "prima vista" or one time through music. The second level is the Guided sight-reading level which is for music that needs to be practiced but only for a short time and the goal is perfection. By studying music at this level a student can learn a vast amount of literature. The third level is the instructional level where lesson pieces are found. These need to be practiced from a few to several weeks depending on the age and proficiency level of each student and the goal here is often performance. The fourth level, which is drawn directly above the instructional level is one I call the "frustration" level Challenge pieces which a student may occasionally earn, are placed here.

The Independent level, which is determined by the test, establishes the other levels. It is the lowest one, for example level one method book. The Guided level is placed one level above the Independent, level two method book, and the Instructional is placed one level above the guided, level three method book. The challenge piece, if given, would then be method book level four or literature one. Testing brings the study of repertoire in line with the student's reading ability and reveals the common problem of assigning material that is too difficult for the student. If lesson pieces are frequently in a student's "frustration" level, he or she will become discouraged. Certain errors are more serious than others, errors that really determine whether the student can read the material or not. These are a)the inability to keep a steady pulse, b) rehitting or hesitating, c)the inability to leave the hand over the piano long enough to establish fingering, and d) looking down excessively. In testing a teacher will need to weigh these errors more heavily than a missed accidental or dynamic marking.

The goal of remediative study in the DPSRP is to teach the skill of sight-reading after the testing has been completed. It is important to go over the test results with the student, finding the errors that were made and establishing the different reading levels. Goals for each of the levels are reviewed and then music is assigned for each level -music that focuses heavily on the concepts that were missed. To attain fluency for the Independent level, I set up the following guidelines:

  1. Play two pages a day.
  2. Do pre-study of the piece before playing.
  3. Use the metronome and count aloud.
  4. Keep the eyes on the music.
  5. Set a slow tempo and keep going without attempting to correct note errors.
  6. Play the piece one time only.
I listen to Independent sight-reading every four weeks at the lesson, but I ask about it first at each lesson and make a new assignment.

The goal for the Guided level is perfection and I assign one page each week asking the student to work hard to get it perfect. The Guided level helps students take the responsibility of learning upon themselves and over time students see that perfection of a piece involves many aspects. In beginning the program the teacher will often see that a student's concept of perfection is just to get the correct notes and rhythms so the teacher gradually helps the student make many musical decisions. If the page is not perfect in one week, the student moves on to another, trying to apply what was learned from the first to the next piece. A teacher can carefully pick pieces at this level that drill the concepts a student missed on the test. It is much easier to remedy problems at the Guided level than at a student's Instructional level. I hear the Guided piece each week and then discuss its perfection with the student and make a new assignment. I like to assign music from the four historic periods so typically, I might assign the Contemporary for Independent level reading, a Baroque piece for the Guided level, the Romantic for the Instructional level, and the Classical for a challenge piece. Whenever a student changes an Instructional level piece, the order can be changed around if desired. At the Guided level, for example, all the Bach Minuets, easy Sonatinas can be learned so the student gets a real feel for a particular composers' writing, rather than learning one or two isolated pieces.

The Instructional level is where most pieces are that a student has been playing. If the test shows that the Instructional level has been too high, then a teacher can either lower it or double up on the Independent sight-reading assignment and not emphasize the Instructional for a while. It is important to bring the levels in line with one another in order to create the optimum learning environment for the student.

The frustration level is directly above the student's Instructional level and most students should not be working in it. However, if a student has been on the program a while, is advancing well and giving quality time to the different reading levels, he or she may welcome the challenge of learning a piece here. I believe in discussing with the student how difficult the piece may be. I point out that it may take a long time to learn it and perhaps will never be ready to perform; but then I leave it up to the student. Many times we teachers have seen a student master music above the Instructional level because the motivation was there.

The first and most important step in the program is for the teacher to place a high value on learning to sight-read - high enough that the progress gets checked first and faithfully every lesson. Making a new assignment and checking a student's progress must be done at every single lesson so the student will be able to learn pieces faster and better. Music study is made relevant when the student can see the fruits of his or her labor.

A teacher will see results in as little as four to six weeks as most students love the abundance of music they are playing. They like playing music that can be mastered in a short time and they want to be fluent readers. Students also enjoy making music decisions about tempos, learning strategies and such. I retest every three months. This is long enough for students to raise a level and correct many specific kinds of errors. I keep a file on each student with the test results so I have the data of the old test to compare each time. If a student fails to raise a level or remediate errors then it indicates that the student is not doing the program each day at home. All students will improve if they are faithfully doing the program.

Students can't possibly buy the music for the DPSRP because a student will frequently go through an Independent level book each week. I have a large music lending library for which I charge a yearly music lending fee so I Ioan the music for the Independent and Guided levels. One way to acquire music for the lending program is to seek out garage sales or sales of music at stores. Many times this yields older music, but it is good for sight-reading. Sometime music teachers organizations combine music to make a lending library. Remember, the more variety one has for sight-reading the better.


� 1998 University of South Carolina School of Music