The first of these topics is using digital assistants. Digital assistants, sometimes called smart speakers, include the Google Home, Apple Homepod, and the Amazon Echo or Alexa. These devices have become familiar to many and are commonly found in homes today. They are also finding their way into more and more classrooms. These devices are very promising for educational use, and they are available in a range of sizes, functions, and costs.
Though the Amazon Show currently sells for US$249, the Amazon Dot can be purchased for US$25. In fact, both the Google Home and Amazon Echo offer full functionality through apps that can be used on smartphones in lieu of these standalone devices. The Amazon Echo offers significantly more skills (or apps) for learning English than the other devices at this time.
The most obvious benefit of these devices is related to the fact that they are designed specifically for an oral/aural means of interaction. This presents us with extensive opportunities for practicing speaking and listening. There are a number of practical activities that can be used across these devices. Some of the most valuable for ELLs are those that promote opportunities for extensive practice, ideally with salient feedback.
Some Basic Educational Uses
These devices can be used for a variety of simple educational tasks. Students can
- do basic internet searches and seek out English-specific information.
- ask simple, common questions, like “What time is it?” or “What day is it?”
- ask for directions or descriptions of things.
- ask for the definition of a word or how a word is spelled or pronounced.
- ask for synonyms and conjugations.
- have the device read any Kindle book out loud.
- get instructions on step procedures (like a recipe or building plans).
- get help with a research project. (After all, these devices are the perfect partner for group work. They have all the facts and their human partners can supply the creativity.)
Games and Skills
Students can also play various games or install some of the thousands of skills that are available. Some of these that specifically target English learning include:
- All ears English
- Listening Comprehension Practice
- Seattle English Tutor
- Learn English with Daily Dose
- Word Game
- Word of the Day Flash Briefing
- Speak Listen Learn
- Listen Up!
A collection of the 50 most popular English language learning skills can be found here.
Of course, there are also numerous skills that are not specifically designed for teaching English, but they support extensive language practice and production. Some of my favorites include:
- Number Facts
- Easy Opposites
- Amazon Storytime
- Story Maker
- The Magic Door
- When in Rome
- The Sims
- Question of the Day
- Song Quiz
- Escape the Room
Beyond these readily available functions, there are also opportunities to create customized skills for a specific group of users. Storyline is a website that allows users to create skills in an easy drag and drop manner, without the need to write any computer code. These skills could be built around course contents or thematic topics. They could target specific vocabulary or other language skill or language practice context. Skills could be games or trivia, or they can be very academically focused. I have worked with students who have created murder mysteries, choose your own adventure games, and guided tours that are all voice controlled. This is just the beginning of an exciting development that will certainly provide us many other promising materials in the future.
For Further Reading
For more thoughts on using digital assistants to support the teaching and learning of English, see these resources: