It’s easy to forget that the same online storefront where you can now order pickleball sets, Prada sunglasses and Alexa smart speakers started off as a small, independent internet book retailer. Today, though, I’m reminded of Amazon’s humble origin story once again, with the unveiling of Amazon Sidekick, a new-powered reading companion app for kids.
Aimed at kids between 6 and 9 years old, Amazon Sidekick is a deceptively simple app that lets children (or adult learners) take turns reading with Alexa from an ever-expanding list of both print and ebooks. Amazon’s voice assistant actively listens, evaluating pronunciation and accuracy, then custom-tailors feedback depending on whether or not readers stumble, as well as how much.
Amazon acknowledges that children’s feelings are notoriously easy to hurt. (As the parent of an elementary-aged child, I can confirm.) If any part of Amazon Sidekick had to be pitch-perfect at launch, this was it.
I got the chance to test out a sneak peek of Sidekick over the weekend, and I’m here to tell you the Amazon devs really cinched the feedback feature. If you skip over a word or two, or maybe only slightly mispronounce a few, you wouldn’t know it — Alexa will keep cheering you on like all you do is win.
But Alexa’s infectiously positive attitude only goes so far. 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.
Amazon Sidekick included with Kids Plus subscription
Sidekick won’t arrive on yourfree of charge, however — it’s included in the $3-a-month , 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 .
There’s also a rather odd restriction even if you’re a Kids Plus subscriber: While anyone, young or old, can read along with Amazon 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 what they want to read, then ask how much reading they’d like to do. “Do you want to read a little, read a lot, or take turns?” Alexa will say.
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.
Another job lost to automation
Inevitably, a cynic somewhere 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.”