Language, Literacy, and Storytelling – Part 3

In Part 2, I shared worrisome statistics about children who enter school excited to learn to read, and the dramatic drop-off when they are not exposed to books and hearing words.  I talked about the next step, engaging children in both conversation and thinking – writing picture stories.

Part 3
There is proof in the pudding down the road.  Language, literacy and storytelling makes a difference, and not just with children.  Well, there’s more. Adults. That proof is in the high quality of Cuban cigars. It’s a great story, one of my favorites.

Reading aloud never gets old. It weathers time and generations. For adults, when we are read to, we listen, think and feel. And, we have to stretch our brain. When we only hear the words it sharpens our mind, and our performance is much better.

The Cuban cigar industry understood this. That’s why they make the finest cigars.

They have la lectura, who reads aloud for up to four hours to the factory workers, from the daily news to Shakespeare to current books. This is both brilliant and common sense; the workers are entertained, happy and productive.

Jim Trelease writes about this in his million-copy bestseller book, The Read-Aloud Handbook. He is a master writer and has it nailed on reading aloud. Here is an excerpt from the chapter about the history of reading aloud and its proof:

Then there is the history of the reader-aloud in the labor force. When the cigar industry blossomed in the mid-1800’s, supposedly the best tobacco came from Cuba (although much of the industry later moved to Tampa, Florida area). These cigars were hand-rolled by workers who became artisans in the delicate craft, producing hundreds of perfectly rolled specimens daily. Artistic as it may have been, it was still repetitious labor done in stifling factories. To break the monotony, workers hit upon the idea of having someone read aloud to them while they worked, known in the trade as ‘la lectura’.

The reader usually sat on an elevated platform or podium in the middle of the room and read aloud for four hours, covering newspapers, classics, and even Shakespeare.

As labor became more organized in the United States, the readings kept workers informed of progressive ideas throughout the world as well as entertained. When factory owners realized the enlightening impact of the readings, they tried to stop them but met stiff resistance from the workers, each of whom was paying the readers as much as twenty-five cents per week out of pocket.

The daily readings added to the workers’ intellect and general awareness while civilizing the atmosphere of the workplace. By the 1930’s, however, with cigar sales slumping due to the Great Depression and unions growing restive with mechanization on the horizon, the owners declared that the reader-aloud had to go. Protest strikes followed but to no avail, and eventually readers were replaced by radio. But not in Cuba.

The Cuban novelist Miguel Barnet reports, “Today, all over Cuba, this tradition is alive and well. Readers are in all the factories, from Santiago to Havana to Pinar del Rio. The readings have specific timetables and generally begin with the headlines of the day’s newspapers. After reading the newspaper, the readers take a break and then begin reading the unfinished book from the day before. Most are women.”

Used by permission of the author, Jim Trelease, 2013, The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin)

No wonder Cuban cigars are among the finest. This story is one of my favorites and illustrates the effect reading aloud has on people. Thank goodness I get to do this multiple times every day with children.

Stay tuned for Part 4.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty-five years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I was a live guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. I am highlighted in the seventh edition of Jim Trelease's million-copy bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital, and the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
This entry was posted in history, Imagination, Inspiration, Jim Trelease, reading, reading aloud, reading aloud, storytelling, Teaching young children and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

64 Responses to Language, Literacy, and Storytelling – Part 3

  1. beetleypete says:

    I saw this story featured on Frank’s blog (Toritto) last year. Fascinating history indeed.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. What a wonderful and clever idea! I love this initiative that lifts individuals as well as the group.

  3. Darlene says:

    A wonderful story about the cigar makers and la lectura. One Christmas, at our annual Christmas staff dinner, our boss read to us from Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe. We were mesmerized. It felt so good to be read to. He was the best boss ever. As a child, we didn’t have TV and we listened to the radio for entertainment. Books were often read and I loved it. I heard Old Yeller read on the radio and many other classics.

  4. I’ve heard that story about the Cuban cigar makers having a reader to read aloud to them. It’s pretty neat.

    I know my two children always enjoyed me reading aloud to them. I remember when my oldest was in high school and my youngest was still in grade school He-Man was away on a business trip, and there was nothing on T.V. so I picked up James and the Giant Peach and began reading it to them after dinner. It got late my voice grew scratchy, but they didn’t want me to stop! It was summer so I indulged them and read late into the night nearly finishing the book. I finished it the following evening.
    I’m looking forward to #1 Grandson reading more and more to me. It’s beginning! 😊😃

    • Jennie says:

      That’s a wonderful story! Your kids will remember that night of reading. Worth the scratchy voice. And now you get to do it again with #1 Grandson! Thanks so much, Deborah.

  5. Ritu says:

    This is fascinating and look at the results!!!

  6. Loved reading this, and I learnt something new again on your blog today Jennie…. The Cuban story a great way in which to educate their workforce ..
    Reading out loud is something I enjoy doing to our Granddaughter and she loves reading her books out loud to us especially if we are on a long journey in the car.. And she knows just how to express and highlight the !!!! marks.. 🙂 Always brings a smile that, Her favourite short reads are Horrid Henry Books.. And Enid Blyton books.. 🙂
    Love and HUGS Jennie..

  7. L. Marie says:

    What a great idea! Thanks for sharing that excerpt. I’d never known that about the cigar industry. I know my niece and nephew used to love for me to read to them, especially on long car trips.

  8. A great idea born out of low tech working conditions. No surprise on the productivity. Thanks, Jennie.

  9. Oh, what a wonderful world this could be if everyone in every corner of the world could hear the spoken word from books! Can you imagine how people could transform? Thank you for this fantastic story!!!

  10. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    This is part 3 in Jennie’s important series on “Language, Literacy, and

  11. Norah says:

    This is wonderful, Jennie. I hadn’t heard the story of the Cuban cigar before. (I really must read Trelease’s book – I’m sure I read an earlier one). What a powerful way of entertaining and educating the workforce at the same time. It would have to have an enormous impact on society. I wonder have any studies been done.

    • Jennie says:

      I feel the same way. And, I would think the impact on society would be tremendous. Workers hear and absorb great reading aloud, then go home. Surely their conversations let alone their thinking would be imposed on family and friends, most likely in the best of ways. Studies would be most interesting. Thank you, Norah.

  12. Dan Antion says:

    I remember hearing this story before, and it made me think about how it would be to work in a place where someone read to me. I think I’d like that.

  13. sjhigbee says:

    I love this tradition! And of course it’s that love that drives the current boom in audiobook sales…

  14. I still remember the newspapers plastered on every available surface in Taiwan, people jostling for position to read the news. I think we’ve lost something important in this country…if the Cuban cigar makers are any example!

    • Jennie says:

      You are so right, KC. We have lost something important. The printed word and the oral word are the foundation for learning and pleasure. If every school had a la lectura, reading aloud in the hallway, classroom, etc., then business and industry would follow suit to some degree.

  15. delphini510 says:

    Thank you for this wonderful story about reading aloud to the workers.
    I have never tried a Havana cigar but seen the contented faces of those who
    did. 😊. Four hours, brilliant idea and wonderful use of time that would hang
    heavy whilst doing repetitive movements.

    We all, from little children up, like hearing a good story stellar.


  16. Great story! Thank you very much Jennie! And you will not believe, but reading aloud was the best way for me in the past, learning the “old languages” Greek and Latin too. It is the best way memorizing information. Best wishes, Michael

  17. I learned something new today so that makes it a very good day! Thank you. I love finding out about this. I read Darlene’s comments and opened my Amazon page and found that I can listen to Stuart McLean free as a prime member. I love listening to books as I work. I often have an audible book going in the sewing room if the embroidery machine isn’t running. Too loud. 😉 I don’t think it’s progress to get rid of the readers.

    • Jennie says:

      I think it is curious that industries don’t do this today. As long as there’s no noise, they have a captive audience. I didn’t know you could do that on Amazon Prime either. I should use it for more than buying books with free shipping. Thanks, Marlene!

  18. I don’t remember if it was one of your former posts or if my hubby landed on an article about those Cuban cigar factory readers…but I believe I’d stand in line for a chance at that job for sure!

  19. I love this! Off to do some reading on it… 😁

  20. The impact of reading on people is quite amazing, Jennie. I like listening to stories too which is why I buy audio books.

  21. dgkaye says:

    What a fascinating story on the read aloud in the work force! 🙂

  22. Sarah says:

    I never knew this about the Cuban cigars! And I love the idea as it makes so much sense and obviously is very successful too. 😊

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