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Amazon's new Reading Sidekick lets kids take turns reading books with Alexa

Amazon Echo smart speakers can now read along with your child's favorite Kindle and print books. Alexa listens, corrects mistakes and occasionally repeats a passage to help kids learn.

Echo Dot Kids Edition panda version
Amazon Reading Sidekick lets Alexa read along with your kids on any Amazon Echo Kids device.

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 off as one of the world's first online book retailers. However, I was reminded of Amazon's humble origin story when I sat down to try out Reading Sidekick, the new Alexa-powered reading companion for kids.

Reading Sidekick has a deceptively simple format that lets children (or adult learners) take turns reading with Alexa from an ever-expanding list of both print and ebooks in the 6- to 9-year-old reading level range. Amazon's voice assistant actively listens, evaluating student readers' pronunciation and accuracy, then custom-tailors feedback depending on whether or not readers blunder, as well as how much.

Acknowledging that children's feelings are notoriously easy to hurt, Amazon took care to really cinch the algorithm that determines what kind of feedback -- and how much of it -- Alexa should give when readers stumble. The results are almost uncanny (and a lesson to amateur reading tutors everywhere). 


Alexa will only correct readers if they stray far from the text while reading.


If you skip over a word or two (or just slightly mispronounce a few), Alexa won't call you out on it. Instead, Amazon's voice assistant just keeps cheering you on. Alexa's infectiously positive attitude only goes so far, however. If you mangle the English language creatively enough (to the point that comprehension could suffer), Alexa will repeat the section you beefed before moving on to read the next one.

Alexa will even notice if you're stuck on a single word and give you a little push by pronouncing it for you, to help you keep moving along. Honestly, it's one of the most natural and, I'd say, useful applications of machine learning I've experienced.

Reading Sidekick available with Kids Plus subscription

Sidekick won't arrive on your Amazon Echo free of charge, however -- it's included in the $3-a-month Amazon Kids Plus service, which gives you and your kids access to scores of other activities, educational games and stories as well. Plus, Amazon includes a one-year subscription ($36 value) with the purchase of an Echo Show Kids device.


The Echo Show Kids smart display comes with a free one-year subscription to Kids Plus, which includes Reading Sidekick.


There's also a rather odd restriction even if you're a Kids Plus subscriber: While anyone, young or old, can read along with Reading Sidekick on an Echo Kids device, only actual kids (or, I suppose, adults who sound like kids) can use a non-kids edition Echo for the feature. (Any Amazon Echo can become a kids' edition device with just the flick of a setting toggle.)

To get started reading with Sidekick, your child just has to say, "Alexa, let's read." From there, Alexa will first ask for a book title, 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, only having the child read the occasional short page. "A lot" flips the script, with the child reading about four times as much material as Alexa. "Take turns," divides reading duties roughly in half.

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Another role lost to automation?

Inevitably, a cynic will claim Amazon is trying to replace parents or teachers with a robot. I asked Amazon Learning and Education Lead Marissa Mierow how she'd respond to such a critic. 

"We certainly don't see Sidekick as a replacement for cherished time when you're reading to your kids or with your kids," Mierow said. "We absolutely see it as a complement to all the other means by which teachers, parents, grandparents are using reading tools."

As a decidedly pro-technology parent, that's the answer I was hoping to hear.

Amazon's Reading Sidekick is available on Amazon Kids Plus now.