Here's how we developed Story Circle:
Developing a user journey that progresses with difficulty:
To aid our team in building a simple story for Alexa, Kev developed a CMS to quickly write up pages in a story, design user flows and develop core voice interactions.
Using the CMS to translate stories into SSML:
SSML (Speech Synthesis Markup Language), is the language used by developers that’s understood by Alexa Skills. With an easy translation system for every page in our story, we could tell Alexa what to say, when to pause, which words to use when interacting with users, and which phonics and sounds each of these words contains.
Implementing core voice interactions:
The Skill was designed for Alexa to prompt users at the end of every page in the book, asking them to read a certain word or phrase. Depending on their response, Alexa will either; proceed to the next page, re-cue the interaction, go back a step, or help children sound out the word and try again.
Making the experience encouraging and rewarding:
The user flows include a number of audio queues such as the sound of pages turning and a ‘ping’ that follows correct answers, but the more interesting parts came into play as children progressed through the story, with words and phrases getting more and more difficult and requiring different levels of ability to complete.
A small segment of the user flows we designed for Sound Circle, highlighting the voice interactions and different conversational paths children encounter throughout the Alexa Skill.
Training Alexa to use phonics teaching methods:
Turns out we’re a pretty young team (28 years on average).
But thanks to the parents in the room, we immediately knew the role phonics play in teaching children how to read. Breaking words down into different sounds to make them easier to say, read and write. The potential phonics offer in more interactive and engaging learning methods (such as songs and games), translated beautifully into an Alexa Skill that uses the same methods to teach children how to read.
Exploring the different phonic teaching methods:
We explored a few different teaching methods that have been used in schools to help children learn to read, which mainly come down to three areas; Analytical phonics, which are used to match the sounds in a known word with the sounds in an unknown word, linguistic phonics, which focus on using repetition with similar sounding words like cat, hat and bat, and synthetic phonics, which blend individual sounds together to create the full word or phrase children are trying to read.
If children get close to reading a word or phrase correctly, Alexa will prompt them with similar sounding words before they give it another go. The ‘repeat after me’ method means that children can be taught more difficult words and phrases by the individual sounds within the word, before progressing through the Skill and the story.
We didn’t want to contradict teachers or schools:
One crucial element of the project was making sure that the Alexa Skill uses the same phonic teaching methods used in schools, ensuring that educating children outside of normal lessons didn’t teach them bad practices, or ways of learning that would contradict what teachers are also telling them.
Teach children how to read with Alexa: Challenge completed.
With a working prototype in place and a plan to develop the project in the future, we’ll spend the next few weeks of Innovative Time finessing the Alexa Skill and developing the additional features and functionality highlighted by the team.
We’re still not experts in teaching children how to read.
What we do know is that to bring the best projects to life, we need to collaborate with organisations that are experts in their fields. If you have experience in children’s education, we’d love to collaborate.