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How to teach piano to dyslexic learners: Step 2

If your student is a total beginner and has just begun piano lessons, read this previous post first…

Otherwise, If you have finished the prep stage and your student has already started reading music and you find yourself with a whole new set of challenges, read on…


Vance in his book “Adapting Music Instruction for Students with Dyslexia” explained that dyslexia encompasses several impairments, and not one particular disorder thus creating a difficulty in finding a single suitable teaching method.


Since playing the piano is one of the most difficult tasks a dyslexic learner can undertake since it involves reading the sheet, decoding the information, comprehending and then searching and moving the hands and fingers on the keyboard, be prepared to be flexible and resourceful in your instruction and not solely depending on one teaching method.

All the time get cues from your student. Continuously ask your student for feedback:

Example: How can we make this more clear for you? Is the font large enough? Is it more clear if we highlight the right hand part?....

It is possible to find yourself teaching two dyslexic students in two different ways.


Main difficulties I encounter while teaching dyslexic students how to read music:

1. Confusing the left and the right hand parts of the score:

For example if you look at Alfred Level 1B below

Some students may confuse the left hand with right hand and start by playing the harmonic interval (C G) with the right hand and the G with the left hand and go on not realizing the mistake for a while. One of my students once played a whole line reversed, I kept quiet, at the end of the line she asked: Why does this piece sound so weird?

This problem is more likely to happen while playing a piece for the first time. Once the piece is familiar, the student will notice the difference in the sound from the beginning and fix the mistake.

2. Difficultly reading from smaller print:

This has nothing to do with vision, the student can actually see the notes really well but when the print is small, reading and decoding can become complicated and will lead to more frequent mistakes.

3. Misreading notes, confusing notes on a line or notes in a space and confusing musical symbols such as crescendo and decrescendo:

Again here, the student can say the note letter names if asked to do so. However, once playing starts, you may get the impression that she has no clue which note is which.

4. Confusing finger numbers and having difficulty playing with the correct finger:

Don’t be surprised if your student who is playing for a while is still confusing his second finger from his fourth, or first with fifth. Associating a finger with a number can be quite a challenge.


Here are some ideas and practical solutions that I found to be useful:

Use a three step approach: Observe, Ask, Teach.


Imagine you are teaching the following line from Alfred’s method book:

1. Observe:

I Prefer to start by asking the student to sight read the line making sure to explain that this is not a test and I am not going to judge, and I am only trying to find the best way to teach the piece. I keep completely quiet, not correcting anything, observing and mentally noting all the mistakes and trying my best to see the score through eyes of the student.

2. Ask:

Referring to the mistakes that occur, I ask questions to see deeper than the level of the mistake itself.

For example: if the student started by reversing the hands, I would ask the student to raise her right hand, on many occasions, the student would raise their left hand. Then a few seconds later would notice that she got mixed up. I would ask then to replay the line using the correct hands.

3. Teach:

Going back to the above example I would ask again if highlighting the right hand part of the score with a color would help, if the student said yes, then she gets to choose a color and highlight that part.

Then I would move on and break the concepts into small digestible pieces and use multi sensory elements to teach these concepts. The task becomes smaller, easier to understand and remember.

  • Ask the student to identify the G clef.

  • Mark the G line with a specific color that the student chooses. One of my students likes to circle all the G’s as a guide, she says this helps her see the score better.​​

  • Say the names of all the notes and find them on the piano.

  • Clap or tap the rhythm.

  • Play the right hand notes as many times as needed to get the notes and the fingering right.

  • Once the notes are secure, observe the dynamics and articulation.

  • Sing the melody.

  • Identify the F clef.

  • Choose a different color to mark the F line and circle the F’s.

  • Say the names of the notes.

  • Identify the harmonic intervals.

  • Clap or tap the rhythm.

  • Play the notes.

  • Put both hands together.​

This may be a longer than usual process, it needs patience and perseverance. However, it produces results and hasn't failed me or my students yet.

Don't expect all dyslexic learner to progress at the same pace or learn using the same method.

Always think outside the box and be open to take suggestions from your students.

They know best how to compensate for their challenges.


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