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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Teaching Recorder: 4 ways to structure instruction

Teaching recorder, or any instrument for that matter, to a full classroom of students working at different paces and with different levels of motivation can be tricky. Throw in popular curricular resources like Recorder Karate and other methods that encourage differentiation/ leveling in a large group setting, and things can get even more confusing! Today I want to give an overview of some different options for how to structure lessons in a full class setting using leveled resources, and offer my suggestions on when you might want to use each one.

1. Whole Class Instruction

Just because you're using a resource that encourages students to learn at their own pace does NOT mean you have to spend all of your class time having students independently practicing on their own. Particularly in the beginning when you are introducing fundamental playing techniques, whole class instruction allows you to make sure everyone is practicing good habits and staying on task.

I always start off my recorder unit working as a full class, and I will often have the whole class work together on their "belts" as well, especially if I have a group that struggles to work independently. I give students specific targets to work on when we are working above or below their individual playing level- I give students dynamics/ articulation etc to add if we are working on a song they've already "passed", and I point out specific attainable passages in a song for students to work on if we're working ahead of their capability. I regularly point out to the class that it's valuable to review and push ahead sometimes, and most students appreciate the change of pace too.

2. Stations/ Small Groups

Small group work can be a great way to strike a balance between encouraging students to work at their own pace and giving students the accountability of working with others. There are 2 ways to approach small group work with recorders:
  1. Have all students working on recorder music but split up into groups by their level
  2. Have students working on related skills at different stations and rotate through
I often will split the class up into groups by level when we first start getting into having students earn "belts" for their leveled songs. In this case, everyone is working in the same way- going through the practice steps that I've taught them to learn whatever song they are practicing together with others working on the same song- so everyone is still playing and working in the same way simultaneously but working on different songs. This is a great way to ease into independent practice and also gives students a chance to help each other rather than relying solely on my help.

The second way to structure small groups is especially great if you and/or the students need a break from the cacophony. In this case each group is working on recorders but in different ways: one station could be identifying letter names of notes, another could be silent practice with fingerings (have them remove the mouthpiece or just tell them they're not allowed to blow into their instrument), and another station could be a playing and/or testing station. If you or students are having trouble focusing with so many different songs being practiced simultaneously in one small space, or if everyone is getting burned out from just playing all the time, this is a great way to break down practice time into some specific steps and give everyone a chance to focus more easily. I've used this occasionally when I have a class that has trouble focusing/ staying on task. I'll still group students working on the same song together in most cases, but if I have a small group that is ahead and a small group that is behind the rest of the class, I'll put them together so the advanced students can help the slower learners and I can give some specific attention to both groups.

3. Extension Time

I know this isn't an option in every situation, but it's worth mentioning: another way to structure leveled/ self-paced learning is to set up time outside of class for students to work on "belts" and independent practice. There are several ways to set this up depending on your teaching situation:
  1. Set up a recess/ before or after school time that is designated as "open studio" time when any student can come in to test, get help from you, or practice with their friends.
  2. Set up a recess/ before or after school time that is designated as a testing time. In this case I have students sign up in advance so that I make sure I have time to listen to those that come prepared to test.
  3. Provide students with a way of sending in recordings of themselves to "earn belts" and/or show their independent learning. They could send in audio or visual recordings via email, upload to a school portal/ shared drive, or set up a call with you to play live.
I use this as a primary method of structuring leveled curriculum when I either need to move on with other topics in class or want to work primarily in whole-group instruction in class but also give students at either end of the spectrum a chance to continue working at their own pace as well.

4. Self-Paced, Simultaneous Practice

Of course you can also have all of the students work individually at their own level at the same time in the same room. The drawbacks are obvious- the noise level and general chaos of having so much happening at once- but when used sparingly it can be a useful way to give students the opportunity to work on independent practice skills when you can monitor and guide as needed. A few tips for making this work:

  1. Even if they aren't necessarily working together, having students who are working on the same song or skill practice in the same area will make it a little less confusing for you and for the students. I designate certain areas of the room for each "belt"/ level and go around to each group to offer my help to the entire group at once while the others are practicing independently.
  2. If you want to give students the chance to practice independently but the noise level is prohibitive, try having half the groups practice without mouthpieces and then swap every few minutes. Not only will this dramatically decrease the noise level, but it will also give students a chance to focus on fingerings, which is generally the most difficult aspect for students anyway.
  3. Have resources available, and systems in place for students to use them independently, so that they do not need your help to answer their questions. Fingering charts, note identification reminders, copies of all the music, practice technique reminders, and extra instruments/ alternatives for students who forgot their recorder should all be accessible for students to get on their own as needed. I keep fingering charts and copies of each song students are working on on a wall display- click here to see my post on how I set that up.
I rarely spend an entire class period on simultaneous individual practice, but I do like to incorporate time for this for part of the lesson most days, especially when we first start self-paced practice for their "karate belts"- I find it gives me a chance to see who is able to practice independently and offer guidance to those who don't.

There is no right or wrong way to structure recorder lessons- I try to keep a close eye on student motivation, individual progress, and engagement levels to figure out the most effective way to structure my lessons from day to day, and that changes throughout the unit, from year to year, and from class to class! Different groups will respond differently to each way of learning and that will change over time as well, so having all of these options available and ready is the best way to go.

If you haven't already, be sure to click here and read all of my other posts on recorders. You can also find all of my lesson plans and materials in my 3rd grade curriculum resource here. And you can get timely resources and ideas sent straight to your inbox, including overviews of my K-6 lesson plans each month, by getting on the Organized Chaos mailing list. Click here to sign up!


  1. I love this bit- so true! we constantly analyze....."the most effective way to structure my lessons from day to day, and that changes throughout the unit, from year to year, and from class to class! Different groups will respond differently to each way of learning and that will change over time as well"

    1. Thanks! It's easy to get stuck in a certain way of doing things as teachers. It's a good reminder even for me to change things up and adjust for the students in front of us!