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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: teaching letter names of notes on the staff (part 1)

Teaching students the letter names of notes on the staff is an important part of music literacy. I think of letter names and rhythm notation like multiplication facts and sight words for elementary homeroom teachers- they are fundamental skills that students need to practice over and over again. And, like learning times tables, it can be boring. Over the years, though, I've developed a pretty large and varied "bag of tricks" to practice pitch letter names without letting things get too stale. I will be sharing my favorite whole-class activities today, and small group activities (for centers or extra help) next week. All of these can be used for treble or bass clef, and incorporate a wide variety of learning styles.




1. King of the Mountain (aka Around the World)
I've heard this game called both names, but the rules are the same: two students, usually at the end of a row, stand up and try to be the first to identify the pitch that you show them on the staff. Whoever gets it right first moves to stand next to the next student while the loser sits down. The goal is for someone to make it "around the world", or beat every other student, but most of the time I just set a time and when that time is up, whoever beat the most people consecutively wins. You can do this with simple flash cards, but I like to show it up on the screen with this website. It's always better when you can blame the computer for picking the notes!

A few tips, based on my experience: 1) Tell students they can only say one answer. If neither one gets it right, go again, but if you let them give unlimited answers until they get it right, someone will start just saying the alphabet as fast as they can. Trust me. 2) If it's close, call a do-over. This game can get pretty competitive pretty fast! 3) If you see a student giving up too easily, or you know in advance that competition doesn't work well for them, have them be a co-judge with you. They'll still have to figure out the note names but it takes the pressure off of them.

2. Floor Staff Races
I have 5 long lines of tape on my floor. I split the class up into teams, and each team gets in a line behind the bottom line. The first person from each team races to stand on the correct line or space for the letter I call. 

Tips: 1) Make sure the lines are far enough apart for a reasonably-sized shoe to fit in between. You don't want any confusion over whether they were trying to stand on the line or space just because their shoes don't fit. 2) On a related note, tell them in advance that if it's unclear where they're standing you won't count it. They must have both feet centered on the line or space for their answer to count. 

3. Swat the Note
You can do this on a projected image, or with flash cards taped to the wall. Call a letter name and have 2 students race to touch/swat the correct note. You can either have them hit it with their hand or use fly swatters. 

Tips: 1) Fly swatters are fun, but they can also be dangerous and distracting. I've found that, if you spread out the notes enough on the board, it's just as much fun to hit it with your hand and one less hassle to deal with. 2) Tell them they can only swat one note- if they both get it wrong call a do-over but you don't want anyone running up and randomly hitting a bunch of notes hoping to get it right. 

4. Videos
If you haven't seen these already, you are missing out. I tell my students in advance that they are cheesy and that takes care of the kids who try to act like they're "too cool" for it. Seriously though, they do help a lot because they get stuck in your head! These videos are parodies of popular songs to teach the letter names of the treble and bass clefs.


5. Xylophone Relay
For this one you need 2-4 xylophones (depending on class size) and flash cards with the notes written on the staff (one set for each group). Divide the class up into equal groups, and have them line up behind a xylophone. The person at the front of each line should have one mallet. Set a stack of flash cards next to each instrument, facing down. When you say go, the first student in each group turns over the flash card and tries to play the correct pitch on the xylophone. If it's correct you say "OK". Once they get the ok, they pass the mallet to the next person and go to the back of the line. The next person turns over the next card. The first team to successfully get through their stack of flash cards wins.

Tips: 1) If you are doing all of the lines and spaces (and no notes outside the staff), try to get your teams as close to 9 each without going over so that each person has one turn. 2) Make sure you are standing where you can see everyone's cards and see what they are playing. The job of judge takes quite a bit of focus on this one!

6. Hand Staff
This is a simple activity but I use it to continue reviewing after we do our "big push" so that students don't forget the letter names. It's also a great tool for students to use independently when they are reading notes on their own. Tell everyone to hold up one hand in front of them, turned to the side. Point to the bottom finger and say the letter names of each line as you point to each finger. Then go back to the space between your two bottom fingers and do the same for the spaces.

I hope you found some new and fun ideas on this list to try in your own classroom- now what are your ideas? Share your favorite whole-class activities in the comments below!

10 comments :

  1. I use the hand staff all the time! It's fun to hear that the JH music teacher sees them use it sometimes. We also love using Staff Wars.

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    1. I love it when they pull out the hand staff to help them figure it out- or even better, when they use it to show their classmate that they got a wrong answer! My favorite was when a student enthusiastically argued back by emphatically pointing to their fingers and yelling out the letters to show them what the correct answer was! :)

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    2. These are GREAT ideas. Thanks for sharing.

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    3. Thank you! I'm glad you found them helpful :)

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  2. Thanks for the ideas. I use several of these but hadn't found the website! I'm going to try it out with my kiddos soon!

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    1. One of my colleagues here showed me the website and it has been such a useful tool!

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  3. What a fun variety of games that all students will love to play and learn the notes on the staff better...I especially like the Xylophone Relay. Can't wait to use it next week!

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    1. The kids were really into it- they get very competitive! ;) Hope you find it as effective as I did! Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Help me visualize King of the mountain - not really following your directions, and I really want to try this in my class. Two students, end of the row stand up and then go where? To the front of the room? Then sit? :) Thanks

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    1. Hi Jocelyn! The students just stand up in front of their chairs- they don't go anywhere. Whoever loses sits back down in their chair. The next person down the row stands up in front of their chair, and the winner moves over to stand next to that person. Let me know! It's a little hard to explain without seeing it in person :)

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