How To Practice Sight Reading

How To Practice Sight Reading

Educators agree: sight reading is important. It develops musical literacy, challenges students technically and musically, and checks for understanding of important music theory skills. It can even be fun on occasion. But how should you work sight reading into your rehearsals? After all, you have limited rehearsal time and a lot to cover. Including sight reading in a lesson plan is critical.

Whether you’re getting ready to perform at a sight-reading contest or simply want to develop that musical literacy with your students, here are strategies for including sight reading in your lesson plan.

Sight Read Every Day

One approach to developing better sight reading skills is to practice every day. Obviously, music educators know the value of daily practice. The benefits of consistent effort apply to sight reading the same way they apply to practicing technique or concert repertoire.

Practicing sight reading as an ensemble doesn’t have to be time consuming, and can serve double duty as well. For example, instead of playing reference recordings for your younger ensembles, have your more advanced ensembles sight read them. It’s great practice, and you’ll instantly get a sense for which sections will provide a challenge and where common pitfalls occur. Including this type of sight-reading activity at the end of class is a simple and time-efficient way to ensure that your ensemble practices daily.

Making sight reading part of your warm-up activity is another way to build daily practice into your lesson plan. After your usual long tones, scales, or other exercises, sight read a new exercise. This approach also allows you to customize the sight reading based on your ensemble’s sight-reading abilities as well as on other repertoire you plan on working on in that rehearsal. You might sight read a simple unison exercise from your method book that contains rhythms similar to those in your concert repertoire. Not only will students get daily sight-reading practice, their brains and fingers will be better prepared for the day’s other learning objectives.

Daily sight-reading practice need not be an ensemble activity. Giving students individual sight-reading assignments for home practice can also work. These can take the form of assessments where students submit a recording of their sight reading, or students can choose from a library of sight-reading exercises. SmartMusic is great for building these types of assignments. We’ll be sharing a sample lesson plan that includes them in a future blog post.

Sight Read All Day

You might also work sight reading into a lesson plan by making sight reading the focus of an entire rehearsal. This can be particularly effective when you’re preparing for a sight-reading contest because students will have a chance to quickly develop their skills over a session of repeated practice. You’ll also be able to offer specific feedback to the ensemble and identify places to improve for the next exercise. Perhaps your students did an excellent job managing a key change, but struggled to sight read dynamic changes. Spending an entire class period on sight reading gives you a chance to address these weaknesses.

When you spend an entire rehearsal on sight reading you can also discuss the sight-reading process in detail. For example, you’ll be able to practice spending 30 seconds ahead of a first reading circling codas, time and key changes, and difficult sections on your part. You’ll be able to discuss strategies for avoiding train wrecks with studentssuch as focusing on rhythms more than pitches.

Focusing on sight reading for an entire rehearsal can help ensure that your lesson plan is also focused. You’ll be able to set clear learning objectives and create both formative and summative assessments for them as part of the plan. You can offer feedback during the rehearsal (formative) and then create an assignment to test the students as part of their home practice (summative).

Gamify Sight Reading

Another option for including sight reading in your lesson plan is to make it a game. Using SmartMusic or another sight-reading assessment tool, have students participate in a sight-reading competition. This also gives students an opportunity to assess each other and themselves, developing their ears and their sight reading.

Of course, awarding a prize to the top sight reader adds to the excitement. It can also provide students with an extra incentive to practice their sight reading ahead of the next in-class competition.

Challenge Yourself (and Your Students)

Finally, consider ways to challenge both yourself and your students when sight reading. Think about ways you can best communicate with students when sight readingand remember that your conducting technique is communication too!

Challenging doesn’t necessarily mean sight reading something with obvious technical challenges. For example, an advanced high school group might sight read “On A Hymnsong of Philip Bliss” not because the notes are challenging, but because creating beautiful, musically impressive phrasing on a first reading is very difficult. This will similarly challenge the director, who must use gesture and other conducting tools to help students read well.

These challenges can be easily incorporated into your lesson plan as learning objectives that closely align with standards. Both national and state standards require students to develop musical performances, not just technical ones. Make that the focus of your lesson plan. But also include a sight-reading exercise to drive the point home and work in valuable sight-reading practice time.

Use our free lesson plan template to get started on some sight-reading lesson plans today.

What’s your approach for working on sight reading this year? Share it with us on Facebook or Twitter.

Ryan Sargent is MakeMusic’s social media manager, an active jazz and funk trombonist, and an affiliate faculty member at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. A graduate of Baylor University, Ryan has taught middle school band and low brass lessons in Texas and Colorado. In addition to his teaching, performing, and social media managing, Ryan serves as vice president for the non-profit Technology Institute for Music Educators.


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