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Amazon’s latest Alexa trick is helping kids read

Reading Sidekick is available on Echo devices starting today

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An Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Amazon has announced a new feature for its Kids Plus service on Fire tablets and Echo smart speakers called Reading Sidekick. Designed to help kids improve their reading skills and ability, the Reading Sidekick allows kids to read either physical or digital books along with Alexa by taking turns at reading the books aloud with the digital assistant. The Reading Assistant is included in the Kids Plus service that comes with the Kids edition Fire tablets and Echo speakers or as a $2.99 per month ($4.99 without Amazon Prime) or $69 per year ($99 without Prime) subscription plan and is available starting June 29th.

The Reading Sidekick works with most Alexa-enabled devices, including the Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Dot Kids, Echo Plus, and Echo Show. Once the Amazon Kids mode is enabled on the smart speaker or smart display (through the Alexa smartphone app), a child can then say “Alexa, let’s read” to start the Reading Sidekick. They will then be prompted to choose a book, either physical or digital on a Fire tablet or in the Kids Plus app on other devices; opt to read a lot, a little, or take turns; and then begin reading the book. Amazon says that “over 700” books are available in the system now, with more releasing each week.

Once a book is started, Alexa will listen to the child’s reading and automatically assist with pronunciations or other challenges while reading the book. It will provide encouragement through phrases like “good job!” when a child finishes a book or gets through a particularly tricky section. In the “read a little” mode, it will take the lion’s share of the reading, expecting the child to follow along in the book and then read one page or paragraph every few pages. The “read a lot” mode is the opposite: the child will be expected to read four pages consecutively, with Alexa reading one after that. The “take turns” mode is simple alternation of reading a single page or paragraph between the child and Alexa.

What the Sidekick doesn’t do is follow up with any sort of comprehension questions to see how much the child retained or understood from the book. There’s no test or quiz component; it’s best to think of this as edutainment than a replacement for a proper learning curriculum.

The Reading Sidekick works with both audio-only Echo devices and ones with screens.
Image: Amazon
Reading Sidekick suggestions on an Amazon Echo Show.
Image: Amazon

The Reading Sidekick works with both Alexa smart speakers and smart displays, but it won’t show the text of a book on a smart display’s screen, and instead uses that real estate for book recommendations. Alexa can also provide recommendations on a basic Echo speaker, so it’s not necessary to use the Reading Sidekick with a screen. Parents can view the books their kids have been reading on the Kids Plus web dashboard.

Amazon says that it is also starting to roll out Alexa Voice Profiles for Kids this week. This will allow the Echo to recognize the voice of a specific child and then personalize the experience to them, which can be helpful when multiple children are sharing a single Echo device. If the child is speaking to an Echo that doesn’t have the Kids mode enabled and Alexa recognizes their voice, it will switch into Kids mode and provide age-appropriate answers, filter explicit music, limit calls and messages to approved contacts, and limit access to approved skills. Parents will be able to set up to four unique voice profiles for their kids in the Alexa app.

In an interview ahead of today’s announcement, Marissa Mierow, Amazon’s head of Alexa learning and education, said that the Reading Sidekick is “meant to build fluency and a love of reading” within children and that Amazon developed it because of how closely reading skills are related to success in academics and social life after school.

The company says it took nearly a year to build this feature, adjusting Alexa’s patience, ability to detect when a child is sounding out a difficult word and understand kids’ pronunciations, and more. Mierow says the company put together an advisory council of teachers, science researchers, and curriculum experts to help guide the development of the service as it was being built. It’s releasing the feature now in a hope that it will help combat the “summer slide” in reading ability that happens when kids are out of school for six to eight weeks between grades.

Mierow says the “sweet spot” age range for the Reading Sidekick is six to nine, as the child needs to have some reading ability to follow along with Alexa, even in the most simple modes. Most of the books in the supported library are aimed at these beginning readers, though there are some more advanced books for older kids who want to use the service.

A Reading Sidekick section on Fire tablets for kids shows all of the supported books.
Screenshot: Dan Seifert / The Verge

I had an opportunity to try out the Reading Sidekick with my six-year-old ahead of today’s announcement. We were able to test reading physical and digital books with Alexa on both a standard Echo Dot with Kids mode enabled and the recently released Echo Show 5 Kids Edition.

Based on our experience, the ideal setup for Reading Sidekick is a Fire HD Kids tablet (or the Kids Plus app on an iPad or similar device) and an audio-only Echo speaker. Though the Reading Sidekick works with physical books, my child had a hard time keeping up with Alexa as it read, since turning the page requires swifter dexterity than just swiping the screen like they can do with a digital book on a tablet. Additionally, the tablet can access the entire library of books that are compatible with the service, whereas it might be hit-or-miss with the books you have at home. (Though Amazon will highlight physical books in its store that are compatible with the Reading Sidekick.)

On the Echo Show, the Reading Sidekick app would frequently quit to the homescreen and start displaying a clock or the weather, even though Alexa was still listening to my kid reading. This was confusing for them, as they’d stop reading when they noticed that the screen changed. The recommendations on the screen are also duplicative of the recommendations on the tablet itself, rendering the screen mostly moot — the experience was just better with the speaker-only Echo. Naturally, it works best in a quiet room where Alexa can hear a child’s voice easiest.

The Reading Sidekick crashed in the middle of reading a book on both devices — Alexa would just stop listening to the book and we’d have to start the whole process all over again. We were able to pick up where we left off, but it’s an annoying process and I’m not sure my kid would have been able to figure it out without me there helping them through it. Amazon says this isn’t something it saw during beta testing of the Reading Sidekick, but it’s possible that it’s related to the company expanding availability of the feature from the preview group I was in to the general population of Echo owners.

When the Sidekick was working as expected, it did help my child through sections they were having trouble reading automatically and attempted to correct some of their odd pronunciations. It also rewarded them for finishing a book with a message of encouragement. But once we were done testing the feature, my kid just wanted to play with the apps and games on the Fire tablet and didn’t have much interest in reading more books.

There are, of course, some immediate concerns with having your kid read with a robot. One is privacy, though if you already have an Echo speaker in your home, this isn’t really any different from that.

The larger concern might be that with the Reading Sidekick, Alexa is taking the traditional place of a parent or teacher in teaching reading. Many parents cherish the time spent teaching their children to read and see it as both a developmental and bonding activity.

Still, plenty of parents would love their kids to read more than they do and just don’t have the time to devote to it due to the many obligations of modern life. The ability to have their child practice their reading with Alexa to supplement any reading they might do together as a family might be appealing. Unlike a parent, Alexa won’t ever tire of reading the same book over and over.

Parents will have to reckon with their anxieties over privacy and an Amazon-powered robot teaching their child, but they’ll also have to deal with the decently hefty hardware requirements. This service requires at least one Amazon device and a subscription to the Kids Plus service. It really works best when you have both an Echo speaker and a Fire HD tablet (or another tablet with the Kids Plus app), doubling the number of devices you need to buy or already own to get the most out of it.

The Reading Sidekick is an example of Amazon figuring out more ways to make Alexa and its artificial intelligence useful in our lives, while of course keeping things within the Amazon ecosystem as much as possible. It’s also unlikely to be the last educational tool given to Alexa: many kids already use the virtual assistant to help with simple mathematics and other trivia questions. It’s not a leap to think that’s where the Alexa learning and education team might be headed next.