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Nurturing self-esteem

9 years ago


Shelia Oglethorpe discusses the intricacies of teaching pupils with dyslexia and the benefits that instrumental lessons can bring.


Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. Dyslexic pupils do not necessarily fall into a category of pupils with low ability: ability is just as variable among dyslexic as non-dyslexic people. Dyslexic pupils however, can easily become disaffected, particularly when teachers are either unaware or too busy to give them the sensitive help that they need.

PianoWith a mindful teacher, the learning of a musical instrument or vocal coaching can greatly enhance the self-esteem of someone with learning difficulties, particularly when they learn to sing or play an orchestral or band instrument that enables them eventually to make music with others. Indeed there are many benefits to all children actively engaging with music as Professor Susan Hallam cited in her article 'Music and the Mind' in the last edition of Libretto. These include improvements in speech and literary skills, intellectual, personal and social development, and emotional intelligence.

For dyslexic pupils, lessons can sometimes become a series of challenges, which create stress and often lead to more mistakes and further stress. For example, if a dyslexic piano pupil is asked to play the scale of D minor with the left hand they may immediately panic, not only about remembering what the notes are but also by having to remember which one their left hand is. It is all too easy for the teacher to think that they have either forgotten what was asked or that they were not listening when the reality is the pupil wasn't sure which hand to use. An aware teacher is always one step ahead and can avoid this situation by simply pointing to the hand or perhaps creating a pictorial reminder to refer to. The result: the pupil is immediately successful, any stress is avoided and a positive feeling is created which may lead to more success.

Another example is a child who does not relate to letter names, because each one has not formed any identifiable concept in their mind. The child may despair of ever understanding written music if their teacher insists on reading the letter names of the notes before playing the music. In cases like this probably the better option would be to teach from memory, thereby at least ensuring success in the short term. Note reading can come later.

There are many gifted music teachers who go to great lengths to ensure that their pupils are happy and successful but sadly there is still cause for concern for those pupils who are either dyslexic, or who have difficulties related to dyslexia. Disorders are not always easily recognisable but, if in doubt, using methods appropriate to dyslexic pupils is a positive starting point.

One good approach is to imagine that the roles of the teacher and pupil are reversed. The teacher should try to remember what it is like to be physically smaller and to have a teacher towering over you. It is common practice for the teacher to be in command, but what opportunities are there for reversing the situation? Why not let your pupil take charge of what is written on their score or notebook and let them choose the colour it is written in and who writes or draws it. They will feel immediately that their opinions are valued and that they have some power.

Apart from all the more obvious advantages, teaching on a one-toone basis has ample opportunities to foster that sense of self-esteem and positive experience in the pupil that is crucial for success not only in music but in many other areas of development. There is a wealth of circumstantial evidence from teachers, parents and even pupils themselves that some children who, drawn by the compelling sound of their instrument and what doors it has opened for them, have not only succeeded in their music making but have also been motivated to succeed in the classroom. That is music to all our ears.

Shelia Oglethorpe is the author of 'Instrumental Music for Dyslexics: A Teaching Handbook' (Wiley Blackwell, 2002)

ABRSM offers a number of standard arrangements for candidates with dyslexia or other specific needs.

We recognise that every candidate's requirements are different and therefore encourage teachers to discuss these with us in advance of the exam.

For candidates with dyslexia the most common allowance is access to extra time for sight-reading. We also offer large or modified notation and tinted overlays/coloured paper.

For candidates who have particular problems with short-term memory and therefore find memorising scales difficult, they may take the scale book into the exam room, for reference only. Advanced written permission from ABRSM must be approved for this provision.

This article was originally featured in the May 2010 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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