Helping a Student Retain Reading Ability
by Marjorie Goertzen
(Fort St. John, BC Canada)
I have an eight-year-old student who is taking his fourth year of piano lessons. He has shown remarkable insight, for his age, into the theory underlying the music he plays, and is fun to teach. However, since last spring, I have noticed a regression in his ability to read lines and spaces accurately. I have assigned extra note spelling exercises, both written work and interactive online games, which he does faithfully, but I don't see improvement. He says he can see the notes well, so it doesn't seem to be a matter of vision. He practices willingly, so the problem isn't a careless or apathetic attitude. In school he does still confuse b and d at times, so I wonder a little about dyslexia. I thought of playing games with a floor-size grand staff, or a memory game with note names. I would appreciate any suggestions regarding a diagnosis and solution.
That is disturbing when a student seems to lose abilities they earlier possessed. Of course, this commonly happens to kids after a summer away from music lessons. Unless his reading loss is profound, I wouldn't worry about it. I am occasionally surprised to find one of my students has been "skating" along, playing partly by ear, partly by finger memory, partly by finger numbers, and only a little bit by note recognition and intervals! I try to preempt these surprises by doing a bit of note-writing every week on my whiteboard with them and also using a staff on the floor such as you suggest. However, I think the real solution is just LOTS OF READING.
Personally, I have not found that games bring reading improvement, though they do help children "connect the dots." What I hope for is that the piece they are working on has a note or notes which they will RECOGNIZE after they have drawn on the board, and then return to their music at the piano.
If he seems like a different child - if his reading loss is dramatic - it is possible he is reacting to toxic stimuli in his life, such as vaccinations or emotional stress. Does he seem happy? This is a difficult thing for a once-a-week teacher to assess, but sometimes you do have to ask...
Talk to his parents, carefully. Tell them your concerns, but not to put additional pressure on him, since, as you say, he practices willingly.
I have a few students who get "stuck" in the regular method book (for me, Faber's Piano Adventure series). I like to pull them along - slowly - by having them sightread for about 5 minutes every lesson in "the Orange book" (Perfect Start for Notereading). This is a compromise which I save for students who merely tread water in the regular book. But they do still write on the whiteboard with me. I assume your student can draw the grand staff, and understands the placement of what I like to call "the invisible Middle C line"?
Good luck, Marjorie. I hope that others will have ideas for you also.