Using Technology to Build Better Sight Readers

sight reader

The best way to build better sight-readers? Make them sight-read!

Of course, teachers know that’s easier said than done, especially when students aren’t physically present in a classroom. Making sight-reading part of each lesson or practice session can be difficult—for starters, you need new music every single time you work on sight-reading! No one has an unlimited library of materials, let alone one tailored to a particular class or student’s sight-reading level.

Even after you conquer the logistical challenges of practicing sight-reading, you end up confronting how to assess sight-reading. How do you track that student is developing musical literacy or improving their technique? Playing tests are a go-to in most classrooms, but they can be hard to evaluate virtually. You’re likely better off just getting students to spend time reading, rather than focusing on assessment.

In this article, I’ll cover how you can use technology to produce unlimited sight-reading exercises, adapt them to keep kids engaged at home, and track your students’ progress.

Getting Started

One of the biggest ways that sight-reading can be a time sink is simply gathering the content, and technology can help. Instead of passing out exercise after exercise as sheet music, you can use cloud-based tools like SmartMusic to quickly generate infinite sight-reading practice for in-class use. SmartMusic’s Sight Reading Builder comes with 10 predefined levels and only takes a click of a button to generate a new exercise. You’ll never run out of sight-reading material again—and you can have the first exercise ready to go for virtual lessons.

A great way to start is to generate rhythm-only exercises. When every class—virtual or not—starts with clapping, you turn on students’ brains, get them thinking musically, and have daily practice in developing a sense of time and pulse. You can gradually ramp up the difficulty, or customize the exercises with specific rhythms. The customizations are also great for focusing on a particular concept, new piece of music theory, or tricky technique. There are dozens of ways to customize the difficulty, and you can save your customizations to reuse over and over again.

The key is to make sight-reading part of your daily routine. When students come to expect sight-reading practice, they’re less fearful of the unknown. They know what to expect: a new rhythm to read today. This comfort will translate to sight-reading at contests, first runs of concert music, and learning new etudes or exercises.

Practicing sight-reading in class can also reinforce concepts you know students are struggling with. Trying to develop mastery of dotted rhythms? Set up a custom difficulty in the Sight-Reading Builder that has dotted rhythms, but at slow tempos, with simple pitches. You can even force the exercise to use stepwise motion to give young singers a leg up. By isolating a particular music concept and spending time working on it with sight reading examples, you prepare students to practice the same concepts in other music.

Sight-Reading at Home

Sight-Reading practice needs to extend beyond the classroom, but if students sight read the wrong notes and rhythms, they won’t make any progress. Again, consistently working on exercises that are tailored to students’ abilities are key. Any of the customizations you make with the Sight-Reading Builder can be included in an assignment so that students can practice them at home. This is where SmartMusic’s sight reading tools really stand out.

You can schedule these assignments in advance, and students are only given one chance to complete the assignment. The student records their take, and immediately sees pitch and rhythm feedback so they know what went well (and not so well). The recording is automatically sent back to you via the cloud so that you’re able to listen, provide written feedback, and track their progress.

Once you’ve built the assignment template, you can send it out multiple times so that students keep seeing the same sight-reading parameters—but not the same exercise. SmartMusic will generate a new exercise for every student, so kids can’t watch a friend complete the assignment to get hints. All the recordings are saved, so you can do diagnostic evaluations or pre- and post-tests to see how well students grasped a particular concept (like those pesky dotted rhythms).

You can keep these exercises very simple at first to focus on engagement. When students are spending time making music, they’re making progress. Having a simple daily or weekly reminder to work on basic skills reminds kids why music class is so important.

Tracking Progress

Taking snapshots of student performance is a useful way to track their progress. Showing students, parents, or administrators that yes, your students are better at playing dotted rhythms than they were 6 weeks ago is incredibly powerful. But these snapshots don’t necessarily document the entire learning process—and they don’t give you as a teacher feedback on how well things are going.

Including formative assessments in your sight-reading practice helps make sure that the learning process is on track. One way to do that is to build a complete unit of assignments that gradually makes the sight-reading material harder and harder. You’ll be able to demonstrate fluency and literacy across concepts as well as keep students progressing.

For example: let’s say that you are working with your students on quarters, eighths, and sixteenths in simple time. First only in 4/4 time, then 3/4, etc. As they get more proficient, you may want to start introducing changing time signatures and keeping the beat constant. By keeping tempo the same, but varying the rhythms and time signatures, you’re developing rhythmic fluency and introducing the music theory of mixed meter. This isolates the theory from technique. In the next unit, keep the meter constant, but gradually ramp up tempo so that students are forced to sight-read progressively more difficult techniques while keeping the music theory simple.

Isolating these concepts and making sure that students can focus helps maintain a challenging environment without overwhelming kids.

Over to You

You can work on sight-reading no matter what your teaching situation is. With tools like SmartMusic’s Sight Reading Builder, you can generate infinite sight-reading exercises, customize them to address the concepts that are most important for your students, and get kids sight-reading. Plus, you can build clear assessments to track your students’ progress as they grow into better sight-readers.

Ryan Sargent

Ryan Sargent is the Educational Guru + Content Marketing Wizard at MakeMusic, Inc., developing and distributing professional development content to educators across the country. He also serves as the vice president of the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) where he helps music teachers use technology in their classrooms and connects educators with the music industry. Ryan is a former middle school band teacher and private low brass instructor. A graduate of Baylor University, he studied jazz pedagogy and musicology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an active trombonist in the Denver area and teaches music history at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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