Primary Teachers As Lectoras

“Mrs Buckthorpe is really good at reading us a story because she puts on different voices.”

That’s what Brett told me, a Year 6 pupil in the class I was about to read a story to as a trainee primary teacher.

The thing was Mrs Buckthorpe was brilliant at using different voices when reading aloud and it terrified me – I’d never read to a class of children before.

Training to be a teacher is a terrifying yet exhilarating experience jam-packed with ‘moments’ and learning curves galore.

But to train as a primary teacher is a big ask because you have to know so much stuff and turn your hand to anything and everything.

Primary teachers have a lot to do but if there is one skill they need to really get to grips with then it’s reading aloud and with bags of expression.

The thing is, no one teaches you how to do this. You learn your craft in the classroom not at University – mine didn’t teach this anyway.

Reading aloud to children is not easy. They judge you. They know if you are finding it difficult and they smell fear. They pick up on the tiniest of mistakes and they want to hear the voices.

Using just one voice when reading a story to children just doesn’t work because it’s boring. They stop listening and start sighing.

You’ve got to have a repertoire of voices with rhythm. You’ve got to be animated. You’ve got to have nerve and get in the zone.

My first attempt at reading to Brett and the other 35 Y6 pupils in Mrs Buckthorpe’s class didn’t go that well. I was a nervous wreck and could probably muster only a couple of voices. My feedback wasn’t that great and Mrs B recommended I watched a few Jackanory episodes and absorbed how professional storytellers did it.

Jackanory was a children’s TV series that basically involved celebrity actors reading a story to their young viewers and more often than not making a brilliant job of it.

These were trained actors and professional performers who put their heart and soul into their story telling and often captivated and mesmerised.

I took Mrs B’s advice and watched as many Jackanory episodes as I could to try and pick up on the techniques and tricks these amazing story tellers used. I think Kenneth Williams was the best followed closely by Rik Mayall.

I watched Mrs B do her thing in class and observed other great teachers in assemblies do the same.

I kept stepping up to the plate myself over and over again until about 12 months later, I actually got my confidence up, lost my inhibitions and started using voices, funny voices that the children loved. It was all about full on energy, diction, drama and bringing a story to life.

Over the next 20 years of teaching, story telling was something I continued to work at and got to the same level that Mrs B did – it only took me two decades!

So to be a primary teacher you have to be a lectora. What I didn’t realise though was this – being a lectora is an actual job in it’s own right. This is a storyteller who entertains the workers.

In BBC Two’s The Last Woman on Earth with Sara Pascoe, Sara learns about endangered jobs and the Lectora is one of them. She visited Cuba and met a lectora who read to workers in a cigar factory – Sara had a go too and things didn’t go that well.

It’s a quite brilliant idea though. How did this begin? Well, the owners of a tobacco factory in Havana during the mid-19th century delegated one of their workers to spend their shift reading to the employees who were rolling the cigars.

When someone read to the workers it was found they enjoyed their mind-numbing work more and it also helped to build their education. This idea really caught on and other cigar factories in Cuba also employed lectores to read newspapers, magazines and works of literature.

They were read novels such as Les Miserables by Victor Hugo; works by Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.

Today, the tradition carries on and lectores entertain, inspire and unify generation after generation.

But it does come with some feedback.

If a lectora’s reading was particularly well-received, the workers would rap their knives on their cutting boards as a form of applause. If the workers didn’t think the reader was convincing enough or the story was boring or uninteresting then  they threw the blade on the floor as a sign of disapproval.

Being a lectora isn’t an endangered job if you are a primary teacher though – it is part and parcel of being one. To be a teacher you have to be a lectora, like it or lump it. Don’t worry, the children will soon tell you if you are any good at it or not.


This fascinating job is explored in more detail in the article Cigar factory lectors by by Alex Q. Arbuckle and in Rolling By the Book by Miguel Barnet.

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