Amazon has made no secret of making customers out of the whole family, including the kids. There are already various ways to bring Alexa into your child’s life, from devices like smart displays and Fire tablets to skills that enable everything from games to homework help. And now, Amazon has announced Reading Sidekick, a new skill that allows Alexa to read a book along with your kid and coach them when you’re not available.
Reading Sidekick was designed in the interest of making “reading more fun.” It works best for kids ages 6-9 who still need help parsing sentences and learning pronunciation. Reading Sidekick works with both physical and digital books, provided they’re available in Amazon’s library. You’ll need an Amazon Kids Plus account to activate it, which costs $5 per month without Amazon Prime and $3 with an active subscription. There are more than 700 books available at launch, including recently published titles like Hair Like Mine and long-standing favorites like Chica Chica Boom Boom.
After your kid commands, “Alexa, let’s read,” the assistant will ask the child to say the book title, and then it will queue it up to start. You can choose how much you want Alexa to read along or if it should take turns.
Once your child starts to read, Alexa will listen and respond accordingly. If your child is struggling, Alexa will provide the next word to help them move forward. And when they’re succeeding, Alexa will offer words of encouragement, like, “Amazing job!” and, “Way to stick with it,” which is not something a human would say in this day and age, but maybe this a way to help differentiate Alexa from real people. Alexa will even offer up a “woohoo!” if your kid is nailing the pronunciation of words and managing a healthy pace.
Honestly, the Reading Sidekick sounds like fun—like something I would have taken advantage of when I was a kid reading all by my lonesome. I might even try this out with my daughter once she’s of reading age. It’s an easy way to encourage reading practice when you’re not available, and the fact that it’s an AI assistant is a neat gimmick for keeping a kid entertained.
The Reading Sidekick feature is being released alongside Alexa Voice Profiles for Kids, which will allow parents to opt in for a separate voice profile for up to four children. For a child that relies on constant interaction with the digital assistant, it might be something you consider for the ease of access and built-in parental controls that come with it.
But before you commit, consider how Amazon trained its assistant to make these kid-specific features a reality. As TechCrunch reminded us, Amazon uses kids’ voice recordings for Alexa’s speech recognition and natural language understanding. In some cases, Amazon manually reviews the voice samples. And that’s how Alexa can understand accents, lisps, and all the different ways that a child might pronounce a word in their early development.
If you’re a parent that’s waffling on the utility of these assistant features, and you’ve already brought the devices into your home, you can review how to delete individual voice recordings featuring your child. You can also set it up so that Alexa automatically deletes recordings after a set period of time. The option is available in the Alexa Privacy dashboard on the mobile app, under More Settings. From there, tick the option to enable deletion by voice. Then you can select when and how often Amazon should clear out your voice recordings. I have it set so that it never saves my queries.
I reached out to Amazon to clarify whether this ability will extend to Alexa Voice Profiles for Kids. Amazon responded that parents control the voice recordings by using the above-mentioned Alexa Privacy dashboard to ensure consistent deletion.
For anyone thinking of Reading Sidekick as a helpful tool for keeping kids engaged through the summer, the feature is now available if you’re an Amazon Kids Plus subscriber. Alexa Voice Profiles for Kids will roll out to everyone by July 2.
Updated 6/30/2021, 12:15 p.m. ET: This story now includes clarification from Amazon.