Reading difficulties for a student with ADHD


Cheryl said: May 16, 2013
Cheryl Ball
Suzuki Association Member
Dublin, OH
10 posts

I have two transfer piano students from Utah. Their coach (Mom) is very diligent, each child having an early morning practice before school. They have an older brother who is a book 3 student. His former teacher and Mom have tried to teach him to read music, but have had difficulty.

I would hate to see a student playing at that level never achieve the ability to read. So I asked his mother to please write down a synopsis of what has been tried in the past and the things with which he struggles.

Thank you in advance for any ideas and tips ! “Fay” is the name of their previous teacher, and Julianna is his younger sister. Here is what mom wrote:

Fay’s thoughts were that just continuing to read music each day it would eventually kick in. We did flash cards, and read in regular method books everyday. He kept progressing through the method (Alfred), slowly but surely, because, of course, he could use his ear and memorize the pieces. He also worked on hymns for the practice in reading intervals. By the time he got to level 4 Alfred, he just kept getting frustrated because he really couldn’t read at that level.

He does better with hymns than with other reading at the same level.

What I have observed is that he can read the notes in isolation just fine. He becomes very distracted by all the notes and other information on the page and can’t filter the information. I believe this is ADHD related.

This past year I have abandoned any pretense of moving forward with Suzuki or any other advancement of his playing ability- a hard choice, as Juliana soon will pass him in Suzuki and at that point, there is no going back to Suzuki for him, unless he asks. No one should have to play pieces their little sister already played. My only goal is to get him reading music at the level he currently plays. Recently we moved to only playing pieces he is very motivated to play- pieces that are easier than his playing level but a serious challenge for him in reading. Last month I got the Faber adult beginner program and we are moving through that. It is early in that process, but I think it is helping to go all the way back to the beginning, but with an adult, faster moving format.

So there you have it. Any further suggestions you or anyone else has would be wonderful!

G said: May 17, 2013
G Ordun
Suzuki Association Member
Vienna, VA
21 posts

A couple of thoughts …

(1) Put him back on track in the Method. Right Away.

Try to convince Mom that reading music is nowhere near as important as PLAYING music.

So what if he doesn’t end up on the concert stage? Or even in the music industry?The VAST majority of our students will not.

(2) THEORY—Perhaps focusing on theory and chord structure will be more helpful for this student—whatever style of music he ends up playing.

(3) REVIEW—Go back. Have him review select pieces in Books 1 and 2. WITH THE MUSIC.

From Book 2, I have my students play their Book 1 review with the music open in front of them and play reading games with them. The simplest game is to STOP and have them figure out where on the page they are. You could work your way up to Book 3 while working a separate track of reading or sight-reading for him.

BTW—Review is also an excellent way to introduce chords and cadences to students who haven’t had them pointed out along the way.

(4) DO NOT POLISH reading pieces. EVER.

As Mom says, the memory kicks in so quickly, there’s no reading happening. So move on. We’re already taking plenty of time with the Suzuki repertoire.

(Oh, well, I guess we do need to polish adjudicated pieces … but that’s a separate tirade.)

(5) READ a SINGLE book.

Find a reading course that you like which comes in a single book. Multiple books waste paper, money and lesson time flipping back and forth between them—another kind of distraction.

If he’s really having difficulty processing the amount of information on the page, go back. Look for a long series with big print that doesn’t have too many moving parts and work through it with him.

I consider The Music Road an excellent remedial sight-reading series. Keep it in your studio and have him read a page for you, at every lesson, so you can keep track of how he’s progressing.

If he wants to read, he will. Eventually. Just give him materials appropriate to his ability to process.

And keep him playing. And REVIEWing as much as you can.


Caitlin said: May 17, 2013
Caitlin HunsuckViolin
Merced, CA
41 posts

I would have to agree… get back on the Suzuki method. Playing by ear must be a happy thing for him… why end that?

I think its an odd assumption of teachers that weren’t raised in the Suzuki method to think a child can play well and not read. But indeed it is not only common, but I think beneficial for the child that struggles with reading. Get the child’s playing ability high while working on the thing they struggle with.

Being one of those Suzuki kids that struggled with sight reading, and reading in general, and also having a sibling with the same problem (and 3 other siblings without the problem)… and a couple friends with ADHD with a similar past, here are my thoughts:

  1. Things like reading “click” for kids like us. We take forever to get something… teachers who have endurance just keep pushing us until one day it “clicks.” I watched my baby brother struggle with reading till he was 8. Not reading at all! could put letters together, but wasn’t fluent. Then one day it “clicked,” and within a few weeks he was reading ABOVE his grade level. Today he is an excellent reader… and reading music is starting to click for him too! He keeps going forward in his cello and one day all of it will catch up. Apparently I had a similar story. Though I do not remember the bulk of it (non-event for me, huge thing for my parents?)

  2. Outside the world of classical musicians are thousands of functioning musicians who play by ear and don’t read music. They are self-taught and learn by ear. I run into these musicians ALL the time for different gigs (weddings, bands, funerals, etc.). As a Suzuki student who learned by ear, and then learned to read, I consider myself “bi-lingual.” Would you be able to play for something if the musicians you were working with didn’t give you music?

  3. Why would you prevent someone from growing as a musician because they aren’t meeting your expectations with reading? It’s like putting a ball in a small box and telling it to become a square because you don’t like it’s current shape. As a teacher I try to not compare my students to each other. Each one is on their own journey. I rejoice at the things they are good at… and developed those skills and let them experience self-satisfaction at being good at that thing!… I also try to find their week points and work on those things so they do inhibit them as adults. I figure I can work through anything over the next 10 years! What are your book 3 student’s strong points?

  4. Make the notes larger. Up until age 12 or so, reading small notes was very hard for me. The whole effort of concentrating and tracking a line was very hard. With reading books I could put an index card under the line I was reading; with music I was doomed. Try point under the notes so he can track easier. That will help tons. My mom took me to the eye doctor several times and was told I had 20/20 vision. Which I did, but with astigmatism. This was making it hard for me to concentrate. I didn’t get the correct glasses for this until I was 16. That was life changing (don’t always assume its the ADD/ADHD).

  5. Things ADD/ADHD kids are generally good at:
    -They are great performers
    -They are great public speakers
    -They learn by doing
    -They like to do things right now
    -They see the big picture
    -They love interacting with people
    -They are creative
    -They have ideas outside the box (they see the world differently than other people)
    -As they grow, they are great organizers when it comes to getting people together
    -They are very caring
    -They bounce back after failing/flopping something

Things that can bug ADD/ADHD kids:
-Lines inhibit their creativity
-They don’t understand why things have to be a certain way
-Tracking things on a page can be hard
-They often miss the small detail
-Things easily distract them from their current task
-It may take them a little while to finally “get something”
-It’s hard to stay on one task for too long…

Heather Reichgott said: May 17, 2013
Heather ReichgottPiano
South Hadley, MA
94 posts

Draw a single staff (either clef) on a piece of poster board or big marker board and then write out the first several notes of a Suzuki piece he already knows. Don’t tell him what the piece is. Make him read until he guesses it and then he can play the piece through from memory as a reward.

I have found this motivating with reluctant readers—except I’ve written out a bunch of pieces on a sheet of paper beforehand and titled it “Mystery Pieces for [student’s name]” at the top. The single big sheet of posterboard with a single staff is just a guess based on the benefits of limiting extraneous information for ADHD kids.

Barb said: May 18, 2013
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

I have heard a few things about ADHD and reading—that it often works better to have a paper to cover all but the current line they are reading. This could be difficult with music as you would need extra hands to move the paper, but if you/mom could help??? Also, I remember that math books with colorful pictures or a lot of problems on one page are difficult. Better to have simple pictures (when necessary) and few problems on the page.

I have a friend whom I went to school with for most of our K- 12 years. Looking back at his personality and behavior (boy did he frustrate our orchestra director!), I think today he would be categorized as having ADHD. Reading the list Caitlin posted of things they are good at suits him to a T. He is now a successful composer, performer, motivational speaker. He doesn’t write his music down, it’s all by ear and it’s beautiful. I don’t recall him having trouble reading music in school, but I am not sure. Maybe he was getting by mostly by ear and memory?

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

Heather Swanson said: May 18, 2013
Heather Swanson
Suzuki Association Member
3 posts

Hi Caitlin,
Thanks for your kind, thoughtful response. I can relate!

Fellow ADHDer,


Beth Cantrell said: May 18, 2013
Beth CantrellTeacher Trainer
SAA Board
Suzuki Association Member
17 posts

This is an exciting discussion -i have two more thoughts.

Enlarge and Copy the music onto a colored paper, such as pale blue, green or yellow, as this makes the black notes easier to see.

Try having the student move through the staff with fingers up and down the staff, or put a big staff on the floor with blue painter’s tape for feet to find the notes.

Many ADHD’s are kinesthetic learners, and these activities are good for all the students in your group, so that can allow the child to be “normal” (normal is a setting on the dryer).

Have fun!

Beth Cantrell

Michelle McManus Welch said: May 20, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Lindenhurst, IL
42 posts

I have a bright, talented 10 year old beginner with ‘focusing problems’; we use sticky notes to keep her attention on the line she is playing in the book. She is going for eye? therapy to help with this in the summer. Perhaps the long sticky notes would work?

Michelle Mc Manus Welch

Alicia Johnson said: May 21, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Cello, Viola
Harlingen, TX
4 posts

When my youngest son was 10 years old, he developed double vision. He was not reading music yet. We took him to vision therapy to strenghten the muscles in eyes and his eye hand coordination. He not only skipped several levels in reading words after the therapy, he was able to start reading music at that time.


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