It’s easy to forget that the same website where you can now order a Nicholas Cage plush pillow, pickle flavored lip balm, and Alexa smart speakers started out as one of the first online book retailers. in the world. However, I remembered Amazon’s humble origin story when I sat down to try Reading Sidekick, the new Alexa– powered reading companion for children.
Reading Sidekick has a deceptively simple format that allows children (or adult learners) to take turns reading with Alexa from an ever-growing list of print and electronic books in the reading level range of 6 to 9 years old. Amazon’s voice assistant actively listens, evaluating pronunciation and accuracy for student readers, then personalizes comments based on whether readers are wrong or not, as well as by how much.
Recognizing that children’s feelings are notoriously easy to hurt, Amazon has taken care to really fine-tune the algorithm that determines what kind of feedback – and how much – Alexa should give when readers stumble. The results are almost bizarre (and a lesson for amateur reading teachers everywhere).
If you skip a word or two (or say a few lightly), Alexa won’t call you. Instead, Amazon’s voice assistant keeps cheering you on. Alexa’s positive and contagious attitude does not go further, however. If you change the English language creatively enough (to the point that comprehension might suffer), Alexa will repeat the section you reinforced before moving on to the next reading.
Alexa will even notice if you’re stuck on a single word and give you a little nudge as she speaks it for you, to help keep you moving forward. Honestly, this is one of the most natural and, I would say, useful machine learning applications that I have experienced.
Reading Sidekick available with the Kids Plus subscription
Sidekick will not arrive on your Amazon Echo free, however – it’s included in the $ 3 per month Amazon Kids Plus Service, which gives you and your children access to many other activities, educational games and stories. In addition, Amazon includes a one-year subscription (value of $ 36) with the purchase of a Echo Show Kids device.
There’s also a rather odd restriction even if you’re a Kids Plus subscriber: While anyone, young or old, can read with the Reading Sidekick on an Echo Kids device, only real kids (or, I guess, the kids). adults who ring like children) can use a non-child Echo edition for functionality. (Any Amazon Echo can become a children’s editing device with one click.)
To start reading with Sidekick, your child just needs to say, “Alexa, let’s read”. From there, Alexa will ask for a book title first, then ask, “Do you want to read a little, read a lot, or take turns?” “
Answer “A little” and Alexa will read most of it, making the child read only an occasional short page. “Many” overturns the script, the child reading about four times as much material as Alexa. “Take turns,” roughly divide the reading assignments in half.
Another role lost for automation?
Inevitably, a cynic will claim that Amazon is trying to replace parents or teachers with a robot. I asked Marissa Mierow, Amazon’s Head of Learning and Education, how she would react to such a criticism.
“We certainly don’t see Sidekick as a replacement for the precious time when you read to your kids or with your kids,” Mierow said. “We absolutely see it as a complement to all the other ways in which teachers, parents, grandparents use reading tools.”
As a decidedly pro-tech parent, this is the answer I was hoping to hear.
Amazon’s Reading Companion is now available on Amazon Kids Plus.