One of the perennial challenges for music teachers seems to be teaching sight-reading, particularly to older children who have not developed music reading skills at a young age. Music teachers often believe that students will get better at sight reading by practicing sight reading. This is true if students already know how to read music, and are trying to improve on what they already can do. But students who cannot read music, or are poor music readers will only practice poor reading and poor reading habits if they are sent off to practice. Music teachers must always equip students to practice before asking them to do so. With this in mind, I have some things students should be able to do before they simply go off and practice sight reading.
First, musical notes represent sounds, not fingerings. If you are teaching a musical instrument, require your students to sing what they are about to play before they play it. Even if they have to sing at a slowed tempo, auditing the pitches before playing them will be a tremendous help. I once tried an experiment with two beginner fifth grade trumpet classes. For one class, I taught them solfege and required them to correctly sing with solfege syllables every line of music before they played it. With the other class, I did not teach them solfege or require them to sing, but just had them play the music. Both classes used the same method book, and had the same instructional times. The result was that the class that sang was four pages ahead of the class that did not sing by the December concert. Since then, I have found that singing consistently advances students faster in their instrumental music studies. Singers need to separate themselves from pianos. It is my opinion that singers rely far too much on a piano to learn their music. As a result, much of their repertoire is learned by rote, with little audiation taking place. Reading music must involve hearing tones in the imagination where none are physically present. Practicing sight reading must include producing physical sound from the written note, with no help from another sound source. Tuning can be checked with an electronic tuner to avoid inadvertently going flat or sharp.
Second, Western tonal music is composed within the context of tonic-dominant harmonic relationships, and of isometric patterns. The natural stresses that are applied by harmonic functions, metrical placement, note duration, and consonance and dissonance are all integral parts of the musical experience. When musicians read music, they must do so in conformance with the written rhythms, meters, beats, and patterns of tension and release that grow out of the rhythmic and harmonic contexts. It is not enough to sing the correct pitches and rhythms, though even this is too often not accomplished, but they must be inflected and interpreted in such a way that the hierarchical structure of Western tonal music is perceptible. The singer or instrumentalist must stress the appogiatura or suspension, must build tension approaching a cadence and release it on the resolution, must realize the subtle but crucial difference between the downbeat of a weak measure and the downbeat of a strong measure, must understand that there are many levels of beats present in music, from the division of the ictus, to the beat of the onset of each four-measure phrase. These are all elements of good music reading, and making them part of what is practiced when sight reading is practiced makes the experience more musical and less pedantic. Sight reading must be about more than pitches and rhythms, because music is much richer than that.
Third, anything that is written represents something that exists in the physical world. The world apple represents a particular variety of fruit. The word is not the fruit, but refers to the fruit, and is the name given to the thing that exists in the physical world that we know to be an apple. A note on a musical staff is not a color, picture, number, or even a solfege syllable, for those are just names for the representation, not the thing itself. The thing itself is the sound–that is what the written note represents. Regardless of what strategy or method is used to teach music reading, ultimately, the written note must be associated with the heard sound, and the student must be able to make the sound so that it is audible in response to seeing the written representation of it. This, I feel, is the step that is frequently overlooked. There is either no sound taught prior to revealing the note, in which case the student cannot know what the note represents, or the sound and written representation are taught simultaneously, which leaves the confused learner to wonder whether the sound represents the written note, or the note represents the sound. We must teach the sound, then the representations. That means sight reading is taught first by teaching the sounds contained in what is to be read, and then associating the sounds which are already familiar, to the notation of them, which is new. That is how sight reading ought to be taught.