Beyond the ABCs: The Literacy Council uses games to build reading skills

Playing a game of Go Fish could boost reading and writing skills.

A modified version of the classic card game is one of the tools the Literacy Council of Bay County deploys to help kids catch up on reading.

Since 1986, the Literacy Council has trained 1,600 tutors helping more than 2,000 learners improve their reading and writing skills.

The Literacy Council serves people of all ages, says Executive Director Kathy Rayner. 

The Literacy Council is a United Way of Bay County impact partner agency, and also conducts fundraisers throughout the year to make programs and services available free of charge. The United Way of Bay County website has identified literacy as a priority issue for Bay County, stating, “Data from the 2019 Kids Count report shows that 56% of Bay County third graders are not reading proficiently.”

During March is Reading Month, the focus is on two programs the Literacy Council runs for kids.

First is an after-school program that runs through the academic year. This year, 19  kindergarten through third-grade students are in the after-school program. Another six kids are on the waiting list, Rayner says.

The after-school program runs on weeknights at Alice and Jack Wirt Library, 500 Center Ave. Students meet with a tutor for 45 minutes once or twice a week.

Every summer, the program expands. Without the demands of schools, students and tutors can meet more frequently.

It begins next month when Rayner contacts the elementary schools and asks teachers to talk to parents of students who are at least six months behind in math or reading skills. 

Parents then call Rayner and schedule an assessment to learn what their child needs. For example, does she recognize rhyming words? Does he know the sound blends such as “ch” and “th” make?

At the same time, Rayner recruits and trains tutors. Tutors can be as young as high school students. In fact, Rayner says high school students are especially creative and easily connect with youngsters.

“I really hope we can get as many high school students to tutor as possible,” Rayner says.

Tutor training is one-on-one and takes an hour or so. Before the training, Rayner matches each tutor with a student. Then, she trains each tutor on the specific skills his or her student needs. 

During the training, she provides teaching tools, which often resemble games. For example, she has a modified “Go Fish” game. Instead of silly pictures, each card contains a word. 

Students ask tutors “Do you have a card that says ‘when.’” The tutor has three options. As in the traditional game, the tutor can say “go fish,” or provide the card. 

For emerging readers, though, there’s a third option. If the student says a card that isn’t in the deck, the tutor asks the student to spell it. Then, the tutor can tell the student the correct word.

An alternative form of the game is concentration. The tutor lays all the cards facedown and the student matches the words. 

Last summer, 2023, 34 students were part of the program. Rayner had another dozen kids on the waiting list. 

Even as she kicks off the summer program, Rayner is looking ahead to what else the community needs. 

She hears from kindergarten teachers that not all students arrive ready to learn. She’d like to partner with other agencies to help parents prepare children for kindergarten.

Already-existing programs include “Talking Is Teaching” which is a series of signs posted in area parks and nature preserves that guide caregivers to start conversations with children about everything from the natural world to nutrition. Talking is Teaching is a national program.

Local librarians also have dismantled books, laminated the pages, and posted the resulting signs throughout outdoor spaces to create a “StoryWalk.” StoryWalk also is a national program.

Read more about existing programs to help boost reading skills in this July 20, 2023 Route Bay City article.

Through it all, Rayner stresses it’s important that parents and other caregivers frequently read aloud to children.

“Be it March is Reading Month or not, we always encourage parents to read to children for 20 minutes a day until the child can read to you for 20 minutes a day,” Rayner says.

If you’d like to help the Literacy Council, Rayner needs tutors. She also needs books to give to children. The need for board books for babies is particularly high. 

For more information, contact Rayner by phone at (989) 892-5002 or email,

The Literacy Council office is located inside the Corpus Christi Education Center, 1008 W. Wenona.
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at