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    Dyslexia and teaching music theory

    Greetings, Colleagues!  

    I'm wondering if any of you have any tips, tricks, and/or resources related to teaching music students who are dyslexic.  Here are some specifics, to give a bit of context:

    Student has issues with sight singing and dictation, and recognizing whether notes ascend vs. descend.  

    Student has issues with dictation, unable to write down what s/he hears as occurring, but s/he can explain it verbally.  

    Student can copy information from a computer but not from a text, and replying to a question verbally is acceptable, but any written response is way off base.

    Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer!  CC



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    • 3 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Carla, maybe this recent article and its bibliography will help you: Laurel Parsons, "Dyslexia and Post-Secondary Aural Skills Instruction." 


      Megan L. Lavengood  |  Assistant Professor, George Mason University

    • Hi there!

      You've got some different issues going on here, so I'll look at each. First, the one I have a question about off the bat is this business about copying from a computer but not a text. I'm not exactly clear on what you mean by this. What needs copying and why; and when is this difference between what's on the computer s not?

      Sightsinging and dictation. First, what is the student's native instrument and at what point in their music studies are they? Sightsinging and dictation, though, are completely different processes. One involves listening to a whole context, remembering it, and notating it. That can be darn near impossible for someone with dyslexia or someone with an auditory processing disorder. This can be done after listening to the entire selection or it can be done, as you describe, as the person listens. I struggled with this myself quite a lot. Notating while I listened was (would still be) an absolute impossibility. I have that auditory processing disorder and doing it this way wasn't something I could do. Listening to the whole thing was better, but still quite difficult because I couldn't remember. Your student may have difficulty remembering or just being able to translate sound to written, or both. Two things can be done to help overall. One is to reproduce it on their own instrument and the other is to allow the student to chunk it. Both should help. For your student, the reasons would be different than they were for me, even the reason for a translation difficulty. I am stronger visually and I like writing :)

      Now you said the student has difficulty discerning ascending or descending lines. That's pretty basic. Is the problem, though, knowing the definition difference? Is it not knowing which is which? Is it getting the names confused (very likely)? Is it not being able to hear a phrase and know whether it gets higher or lower? I would work with this in a few ways, depending definitely on what the cause is. I would certainly involve the student's kinesthetic concept and integrate it with the sound and their verbal ability. I also would incorporate many written and visual cues to support.

      I suspect sightsinging is a little easier for your student because it doesn't require a receptive processing that results in a written output. It's the reverse. However if your student is struggling with basic musical concepts of ascending and descending lines, that can be independent of whether he or she is attempting dictation or sightsinging. And that's what I would guess just based on the information you provided about it presenting as an issue in both tasks.

      Finally, since your student is strong verbally, I would suggest having them record any explanations they are able to generate. This can serve to help remind later on if there's some kind of writing they have to do, or sometimes it can suffice as notes as is. I would also refer them to the college's disability services because there a multitude of resources available there or through there.
    • Hi Carla

      The last time I had a dyslexic student who really struggled, we had to try a lot of things. In dictation, encouraging 'chunking' (as someone else has already recommened) is definitely the way to go. Yes, there were clear problems with memory there too, and I don't think I found the optimal way to work through those issues.

      Regarding sight singing, I would definitely recommend that the student get an e-book version of the sight singing text. This way, the student can enlarge the melody so that it's the only thing on the page/screen, and there will be fewer symbols vying for the student's attention. My student and I had a lot of success when we did this. My student was also very proactive, and she worked hard to find ways that worked for her. She would read notation through colored transparencies (something like those gels they put on stage lights) running them over the page or screen as she read. That actually seemed to help a lot. I also agreed not to use black dry-erase markers on the board (she preferred color—too much black and white just made things worse, apparently).

      I also spoke a lot with my colleagues in music education, who know a lot more about this kind of thing—and about learning in general. They also offered some good readings, though there are fewer good readings than you might think (Parsons was incredibly helpful, though). One thing that emerged is that what we call 'dyslexia' seems to be a blanket term for a lot of things that brains can do, and that we're bound to know a lot more about it in a short amount of time if we keep studying it. I remember one colleague saying something along the lines of "Very soon, dyslexia will not have the same meaning that it has now."

      Hope this is helpful. Best of luck!