Listening and Speaking With Digital Assistants

There are numerous advances in artificial intelligence and automation that have created new opportunities for teaching and learning English. I will be sharing examples of these in the next few blog entries. These will provide a bit of background on the technology as well as numerous suggestions for how to integrate the technology in the classroom and to support extensive out-of-class language practice.

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.

Benefits

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:

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:

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:

About Greg Kessler

Greg Kessler
Greg Kessler is professor of instructional technology in the Patton College of Education at Ohio University. He has written numerous books, articles, book chapters, and other publications. He has delivered keynote and featured talks around the world. His research addresses technology, learning, and language use with an emphasis on teacher preparation. He has held numerous leadership positions, including as Ohio TESOL president, CALICO president, and TESOL CALL IS chair. He is the editor of the CALICO book series, Advances in CALL Practice & Research, the Language Learning & Technology journal forum, Language Teaching & Technology, and many other comprehensive collections.
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2 Responses to
Listening and Speaking With Digital Assistants

  1. David Weller says:

    Really interesting article – my mother-in-law (Chinese) improved her pronunciation so as to be understood by Alexa, and picked up some new words as well. Definitely something to try and integrate into class, I’ll try and figure out how, and I’ll check out those articles. Thanks!

  2. Digital assistance has a vital importance in listening and speaking skill.

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