The easiest way of finding out if the children can read music is to get them to write it. It doesn’t take long to teach children to understand the basics of rhythm notation; a handful of flash cards and you are away. Here are two ideas I have used:
Year 1 and 2
I am currently teaching “long and short sounds” to my Year 1 and 2 class. I started by using lines and vocal sounds (hissing is nice and gentle). So, a dot provokes a short “sss” and a longer line produces a long “sssssssssss”. From there, I moved to a crotchet sign for a short sound (“that looks like a ‘d’ to me”, piped up one small voice; good, tick the literacy box) and a squashed circle for a long sound, emphasising the length of sound by runnng my pen round and round the circle while the children hiss. The next step was to hand out those convenient little whiteboards and pens that all the classes have, and encourage the children to write their own long and short sounds. Working in pairs, they took turns to compose and perform their music. As they were only using hissing sounds, the noise level was manageable.
At the second lesson, I issued percussion instruments to each pair so that they could play their music. Much noisier, but by selecting shakers, sleigh bells and tamborines it was still possible for all the children to work and play at the same time. It was very encouraging to see the children reading and writing rows and rows of crotchets and semibreves. This topic could go in several directions over the next couple of lessons; I am planning to link into the current numeracy topic of repeating patterns. Another time I might introduce more notation for rhythms, or create graphic scores notating different instruments.
The children will readily learn to read simple 4-beat rhythms from flash cards using either the French rhythm syllable names for note values (try this link for more details: http://www.dolmetsch.com/musictheory20.htm#rsyllables), or “doo” for crotchets “dooby” for pairs of quavers, “doo-oo” for minims. A crotchet rest is easily explained and understood as “a scribbled out taa or doo”. (Flashcards can be downloaded for free from the Australian Kodaly website: http://www.kodaly.org.au/). The cards can be given out to individuals or groups of children and used to compose short percussion pieces using vocal sounds initially, and moving on to classroom percussion instruments. I usually start with a card showing 4 crotchets (doo doo doo doo), move on to a card showing 4 pairs of quavers (dooby dooby dooby dooby) and then to cards with a mixture of crotchets, crotchet rests and pairs of quavers.
What happens next depends on the class I am teaching; in a Wider Opportunities class we might play the rhythms on the instrument that the class is learning, and in an ordinary music lesson we would use untuned percussion. At some stage I will get the children to create and play their own rhythms. At first the children are likely to fill the page with rows of random notes. Once they are used to writing the symbols, they can be asked to arrange their rhythms into 4-beat bars. Rhythms can be combined in a variety of ways to produce class performances where groups of children play their rhythms in turn, or all together, to produce a variety of combinations of sound and texture.