Can home assistants help kids with learning and attention issues?

It's estimated that smart speakers like Amazon's Echo and Google's Home Assistant will be in nearly half of U.S. households by the end of 2018. This is a welcome trend for kids with learning and attention issues such as dyslexia and ADHD. With their hands-free operation, on-demand information, and scheduling ability, home assistants can supplement the assistive technology (AT) that kids are already using.

Home assistants can do routine tasks such as set timers, keep a shopping list, and stream music. But they can also do many things to help your child with reading, writing, and math, as well as tasks that involve organization and time management. All you have to do is say the device's "wake word" ("Alexa" for the Echo and "OK, Google" or "Hey, Google" for the Home). For some tasks, you'll need to enable app-like tools, called skills on the Echo and actions on the Home, which you can find on the companies' websites. And, don't worry, using AT like this for learning issues isn't cheating, any more than is using glasses if you have bad eyesight.

Keep in mind that if you do want to try a home assistant, you'll need a mobile device like a smartphone to set it up. It's also important to think about your family's online privacy and how the device may affect your kid.

Here are a number of ways home assistants can be used as assistive technology for your child:

Help with spelling. Spelling can be a trouble spot for kids with learning issues. If they need help, they can ask a home assistant how to spell a word. If it's a word that has more than one spelling (like beat vs. beet), it's a little trickier, but kids can clarify which spelling they want. You can also find special spelling apps designed for kids by browsing Amazon's Skills page or the Google Assistant Actions section.

Define and offer synonyms for words. Kids with reading issues can also ask home assistants for the meanings of words they don't recognize. For instance, they could say, "OK, Google, what does 'dyslexia' mean?" Kids can ask for synonyms if they want to change particular words in their writing; they could ask, "OK, Google, what's another word for 'happy'?"

Sound out words. Kids who struggle with decoding words can ask how to pronounce a word by spelling it out. With Google Home, they can say, "OK, Google, how do you pronounce p-h-o-n-e?" With Amazon Echo, they can use a skill called Pronunciations and say, "Alexa, ask Pronunciations how to say r-o-u-g-h."

Read books aloud. For hands-free listening to books, Amazon Echo has two options. If you have an Audible account, your child can listen to a particular audiobook just by saying, "Alexa, read Alice in Wonderland." Alexa can also read aloud Kindle books that are text-to-speech-compatible. Kids just have to say something like, "Alexa, read Fish in a Tree in Kindle Books." Google families can buy audiobooks on Google Play and have the device read to them out aloud.

Help with math. Home-assistant devices can be a big help to students with math issues. Kids can ask for basic calculations by saying, "Alexa, what is the square root of 25?" or "OK, Google, what is 32 percent of 500 dollars?" If kids need help with unit conversions, they can say something like, "OK, Google, how many degrees Fahrenheit is 25 degrees Celsius?"

If kids forget math formulas, they can get a reminder by saying, "Alexa, how do you find the area of a circle?" Kids can even practice math by using an interactive tool called 1-2-3 Math. It asks various math problems in a quiz format and is available as an Echo skill and as a Home action.

Set timers and alarms. Kids who have trouble staying on task for a certain amount of time can say, "Alexa, set a timer for three minutes." Kids who have difficulty getting started on homework can say, "OK, Google, set an alarm for 4:30 p.m. called Start Homework." With the Echo, they can say, "Alexa, remind me to start my homework at 4:30 p.m."

Create to-do lists. Kids who have trouble keeping track of school assignments and chores can use a home assistant to create a to-do list. With Echo, kids can add tasks to their list with a command like, "Alexa, put 'practice trumpet' on my to-do list." To access the list, they can say, "Alexa, what’s on my to-do list?" With Google Home, kids can use a third-party action like Todoist to create and keep track of a to-do list.

Manage calendar events. Keeping track of due dates and events can be tricky for kids with executive functioning issues. Home assistants let kids manage calendars by voice. They can add events with the command, "Alexa, add calendar event." To hear what's coming up, kids can simply say, "OK, Google, what's on my calendar for Sunday?"

By Jamie Martin, an assistive technology consultant and Understood.org expert

Shared in partnership with Understood.org, a free resource and community supporting parents of the one in five kids with learning and attention issues, like dyslexia and ADHD. Common Sense Media is a founding partner of Understood.org. Copyright ⓒ Understood.org USA LLC 2018.

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