Have you noticed some of your pupils struggling more than usual to learn to read music? Do they score low in sight-reading tests? Do they take a really long time to learn a piece and then seem to be playing more by ear than by reading the music?
Maybe, just maybe they are dyslexic.
Sadly, many dyslexics go through life undetected. They’ve learnt to somehow find ways of avoiding situations which involve numbers and/or words and have endured endless frustration at the hand of parents, teachers, peers and themselves. Going back a little in time, before such learning difficulties were widely acknowledged, dyslexics were often label as “stupid” or “slow.” However, in my experience of teaching dyslexics (I currently teach four, with a further three pupils awaiting diagnosis), they certainly do not lack intelligence. In fact, one of the adults I teach, who has word dyslexia, is extremely good at maths with a high profile banking job and three related patents to her name!
At this point, I would just like to clarify that I am no expert in dyslexia but perhaps it might be useful to share a few ideas I’ve picked up along the way to help you with teaching students whom you may know or suspect have dyslexia.
As reading can be challenging, dyslexics often learn to rely more on other senses and methods. For example, if a student is struggling with learning a new song by reading the music, giving them a recording can be a massive help because their auditory skills are often very strong.
I’ve found that printing music or other material on cream paper is a big help to some (but not all). Often school teachers will recommend coloured overlays which can be helpful. Every dyslexic is unique.
I now know to photocopy their music and use coloured highlighters to flag mistakes or to help dynamic markings to jump out.
Encouraging them to spot patterns in the music is a very helpful technique as with other pupils. Are the notes going up or down? By step or skip? Is that a sequence?
Can the music be enlarged? And especially if you are working from a Sibelius (or similar) file, can some of the detail be deleted or simplified first? For example, are the guitar chords needed? Or the lyrics? Can the fingering be minimised or the phrase marks left out for now etc.?
Patience on the part of the teacher and parents is vital. Dyslexics need extra time to complete a task. If proof of diagnosis can be given, most examination boards will permit the use of extra time which is especially important for a sight-reading test. The ABRSM for example allow 3 minutes of preparation time for their sight-reading tests compared to the normal 30 seconds which makes a huge difference.
Short-term memory amongst dyslexics can be challenging. Smaller goals, shorter sentences, speaking slower, making the task simpler can definitely help the learner.
If an approach doesn’t seem to be working, try something different. Why not ask them what they think would help.
Above all, give your dyslexic student lots of encouragement and sincere commendation for their efforts. They often endure lots of frustration and sometimes bullying from those around them so a positive, empathetic music teacher can do much to reassure them as a human being and to inspire their musical growth.
Do you have experience teaching dyslexics? What approaches have you found beneficial?