It’s easy to forget that the same website where you can now request a Nicholas Cage plush pillow, pickle flavored lip balm other Alexa smart speakers started out as one of the world’s first online book retailers. However, I remembered the humble origin story of Amazon when I sat down to test Reading companion, the new -Reading companion for children with feeding.
Reading Sidekick has a deceptively simple format that allows kids (or adult learners) to take turns reading with Alexa from an ever-expanding list of print and e-books in the 6- to 9-year-old reading level range. Amazon’s voice assistant actively enumerates, assessing the pronunciation and accuracy of student readers, then customizes comments based on whether or not readers are wrong, as well as to what extent.
Recognizing that children’s feelings are notoriously easy to hurt, Amazon took it upon themselves to actually tweak the algorithm that determines what kind of feedback, and how much, Alexa should give when readers stumble. The results are almost staggering (and a lesson for amateur reading tutors everywhere).
If you miss a word or two (or just mispronounce a few), Alexa won’t call you. Instead, Amazon’s voice assistant keeps cheering you on. However, Alexa’s contagiously positive attitude only goes so far. If you manipulate the English language creatively enough (to the point where comprehension could be impaired), Alexa will repeat the section she refuted before moving on to the next one.
Alexa will even notice if you’re stuck on a single word and give you a little nudge by speaking it for you, to help you keep moving forward. Honestly, it is one of the most natural and, I would say, Useful machine learning applications that I have experienced.
Reading Sidekick available with Kids Plus subscription
Sidekick will not reach yourno charge, however, it is included in the $ 3 / mo , which gives you and your children access to many other activities, educational games, and stories. Additionally, Amazon includes a one-year subscription ($ 36 value) with the purchase of a .
There is also a rather strange restriction even if you are a Kids Plus subscriber: while anyone, young or old, can read along with the Reading Sidekick on an Echo Kids device, only real children (or, I suppose, adults who Dream as kids) can use a non-kid edition of Echo for the feature. (Any Amazon Echo can be turned into a kid’s editing device with the touch of a settings button.)
To start reading with Sidekick, your child just needs to say, “Alexa, let’s read.” From there, Alexa will first ask for the title of a book and 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, and the child will only occasionally read a short page. “Much” changes the script, with the child reading about four times as much material as Alexa. Take turns, divide your reading assignments roughly in half.
Another role lost to automation?
Inevitably, a cynic will say that Amazon is trying to replace parents or teachers with a robot. I asked Amazon’s director of learning and education, Marissa Mierow, how she would respond to such criticism.
“We certainly don’t see Sidekick as a replacement for precious time when reading to or with your children,” Mierow said. “We absolutely see it as a complement to all the other means by which teachers, parents and grandparents are using reading tools.”
As a staunch pro-tech dad, that’s the answer I’ve been waiting to hear.