Microsoft’s Reading Progress makes assessing reading levels easier for kids and teachers

Among the many, many tasks required of grade school teachers is that of gauging each student’s reading level, usually by a time-consuming and high-pressure one-on-one examination. Microsoft’s new Reading Progress application takes some of the load off the teacher’s shoulders, allowing kids to do their reading at home and using natural language understanding to help highlight obstacles and progress.

The last year threw most educational plans into disarray, and reading levels did not advance the way they would have if kids were in school. Companies like Amira are emerging to fill the gap with AI-monitored reading, and Microsoft aims to provide teachers with more tools on their side.

Reading Progress is an add-on for Microsoft Teams that helps teachers administer reading tests in a more flexible way, taking pressure off students who might stumble in a command performance, and identifying and tracking important reading events like skipped words and self-corrections.

Teachers pick reading assignments for each students (or the whole class) to read, and the kids do so on their own time, more like doing homework than taking a test. They record a video directly in the app, the audio of which is analyzed by algorithms watching for the usual stumbles.

As you can see in this video testimony by 4th grader Brielle, this may be preferable to many kids:

If a bright and confident kid like Brielle feels better doing it this way (and is now reading two years ahead of her grade, nice work Brielle!), what about the kids who are having trouble reading due to dyslexia, or are worried about their accent, or are simply shy? Being able to just talk to their own camera, by themselves in their own home, could make for a much better reading — and therefore a more accurate assessment.

It’s not meant to replace the teacher altogether, of course — it’s a tool that allows overloaded educators to prioritize and focus better and track things more objectively. It’s similar to how Amira is not meant to replace in-person reading groups — impossible during the pandemic — but provides a similarly helpful process of quickly correcting common mistakes and encouraging the reader.

Microsoft published about half a dozen things pertaining to Reading Progress today. Here’s its origin story, a basic summary, its product hub, a walkthrough video, and citations supporting its approach. There’s more, too, in this omnibus post about new education-related products out soon or now.

Amira Learning raises $11M to put its AI-powered literacy tutor in post-COVID classrooms

School closures due to the pandemic have interrupted the learning processes of millions of kids, and without individual attention from teachers, reading skills in particular are taking a hit. Amira Learning aims to address this with an app that reads along with students, intelligently correcting errors in real time. Promising pilots and research mean the company is poised to go big as education changes, and it has raised $11M to scale up with a new app and growing customer base.

In classrooms, a common exercise is to have students read aloud from a storybook or worksheet. The teacher listens carefully, stopping and correcting students on difficult words. This “guided reading” process is fundamental for both instruction and assessment: it not only helps the kids learn, but the teacher can break the class up into groups with similar reading levels so she can offer tailored lessons.

“Guided reading is needs-based, differentiated instruction and in COVID we couldn’t do it,” said Andrea Burkiett, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Breakout sessions are technically possible, “but when you’re talking about a kindergarten student who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse or touchpad, COVID basically made small groups nonexistent.”

Amira replicates the guided reading process by analyzing the child’s speech as they read through a story and identifying things like mispronunciations, skipped words, and other common stumbles. It’s based on research going back 20 years that has tested whether learners using such an automated system actually see any gains (and they did, though generally in a lab setting).

In fact I was speaking to Burkiett out of skepticism — “AI” products are thick on the ground and while it does little harm if one recommends you a recipe you don’t like, it’s a serious matter if a kid’s education is impacted. I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a random app hawking old research to lend itself credibility, and after talking with Burkiett and CEO Mark Angel I feel it’s quite the opposite, and could actually be a valuable tool for educators. But it needed to convince educators first.

Not a replacement but a force multiplier

“You have to start by truly identifying the reason for wanting to employ a tech tool,” said Burkiett. “There are a lot of tech tools out there that are exciting, fun for kids, etc, but we could use all of them and not impact growth or learning at all because we didn’t stop and say, this tool helps me with this need.”

Amira was decided on as one that addresses the particular need in the K-5 range of steadily improving reading level through constant practice and feedback.

“When COVID hit, every tech tool came out of the woodwork and was made free and available,” Burkiett recalled. “With Amira you’re looking at a 1:1 tutor at their specific level. She’s not a replacement for a teacher — though it has been that way in COVID — but beyond COVID she could become a force multiplier,” said Burkiett.

You can see the old version of Amira in action below, though it’s been updated since:

Testing Amira with her own district’s students, Burkiett replicated the results that have been obtained in more controlled settings: as much as twice or three times as much progress in reading level based on standard assessment tools, some of which are built into the teacher-side Amira app.

Naturally it isn’t possible to simply attribute all this improvement to Amira — there are other variables in play. But it appears to help and doesn’t hinder, and the effect correlates with frequency of use. The exact mechanism isn’t as important as the fact that kids learn faster when they use the app versus when they don’t, and furthermore this allows teachers to better allocate resources and time. A kid who can’t use it as often because their family shares a single computer is at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their aptitude — but this problem can be detected and accounted for by the teacher, unlike a simple “read at home” assignment.

“Outside COVID we would always have students struggling with reading, and we would have parents with the money and knowledge to support their student,” Burkiett explained. “But now we can take this tool and offer it to students regardless of mom and dad’s time, mom and dad’s ability to pay. We can now give that tutor session to every single student.”

“Radically sub-optimal conditions”

This is familiar territory for CEO Mark Angel, though the AI aspect, he admits, is new.

“A lot of the Amira team came from Renaissance Learning. bringing fairly conventional edtech software into elementary school classrooms at scale. The actual tech we used was very simple compared to Amira — the big challenge was trying to figure out how to make applications work with the teacher workflow, or make them friendly and resilient when 6 year olds are your users,” he told me.

“Not to make it trite, but what we’ve learned is really just listen to teachers — they’re the super-users,” Angel continued. “And to design for radically sub-optimal conditions, like background noise, kids playing with the microphone, the myriad things that happen in real life circumstances.”

Once they were confident in the ability of the app to reliably decode words, the system was given three fundamental tasks that fall under the broader umbrella of machine learning.

The first is telling the difference between a sentence being read correctly and incorrectly. This can be difficult due to the many normal differences between speakers. Singling out errors that matter, versus simply deviation from an imaginary norm (in speech recognition that is often American English as spoken by white people) lets readers go at their own pace and in their own voice, with only actual issues like saying a silent k noted by the app.

(On that note, considering the prevalence of English language learners with accents, I asked about the company’s performance and approach there. Angel said they and their research partners went to great lengths to make sure they had a representative dataset, and that the model only flags pronunciations that indicate a word was not read or understood correctly.)

The second is knowing what action to take to correct an error. In the case of a silent k, it matters whether this is a first grader who is still learning spelling or a fourth grader who is proficient. And is this the first time they’ve made that mistake, or the tenth? Do they need an explanation of why the word is this way, or several examples of similar words? “It’s about helping a student at a moment in time,” Angel said, both in the moment of reading that word, and in the context of their current state as a learner.

Screenshot of a reading assessment in the app Amira.

Third is a data-based triage system that warns students and parents if a kid may potentially have a language learning disorder like dyslexia. The patterns are there in how they read — and while a system like Amira can’t actually diagnose, it can flag kids who may be high risk to receive a more thorough screening. (A note on privacy: Angel assured me that all information is totally private and by default is considered to belong to the district. “You’d have to be insane to take advantage of it. We’d be out of business in a nanosecond.”)

The $10M in funding comes at what could be a hockey-stick moment for Amira’s adoption. (The round was led by Authentic Ventures II, LP, with participation from Vertical Ventures, Owl Ventures, and Rethink Education.)

“COVID was a gigantic spotlight on the problem that Amira was created to solve,” Angel said. “We’ve always struggled in this country to help our children become fluent readers. The data is quite scary — more than two thirds of our 4th graders aren’t proficient readers, and those two thirds aren’t equally distributed by income or race. It’s a decades long struggle.”

Having basically given the product away for a year, the company is now looking at how to convert those users into customers. It seems like, just like the rest of society, “going back to normal” doesn’t necessarily mean going back to 2019 entirely. The lessons of the pandemic era are sticking.

“They don’t have the intention to just go back to the old ways,” Angel explained. “They’re searching for a new synthesis — how to incorporate tech, but do it in a classroom with kids elbow to elbow and interacting with teachers. So we’re focused on making Amira the norm in a post-COVID classroom.”

Part of that is making sure the app works with language learners at more levels and grades, so the team is working to expand its capabilities upwards to include middle school students as well as elementary. Another is building out the management side so that success at the classroom and district levels can be more easily understood.

Cartoon illustration of an adventurous looking woman in front of a jungle and zeppelin.

Amira’s appearance got an update in the new app as well.

The company is also launching a new app aimed at parents rather than teachers. “A year ago 100 percent of our usage was in the classroom, then 3 weeks later 100 percent of our usage was at home. We had to learn a lot about how to adapt. Out of that learning we’re shipping Amira and the Story Craft that helps parents work with their children.”

Hundreds of districts are on board provisionally, but decisions are still being kicked down the road as they deal with outbreaks, frustrated parents, and every other chaotic aspect of getting back to “normal.”

Perhaps a bit of celebrity juice may help tip the balance in their favor. A new partnership with Houston Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett has the NFL player advising the board and covering the cost of 100 students at a Portland, OR school through his education charity, the Big Yard Foundation — and more to come. It may be a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things, with a year of schooling disrupted, but teachers know that every drop counts.

The TechCrunch Survey of Tech Startup Hubs in England and Wales

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey European founders and investors in cities outside the major European capitals.

Over the next few weeks, we will ask entrepreneurs in these cities to talk about their ecosystems, in their own words. For this survey we are interested in startup hubs in England and Wales. (Scotland will follow, and Northern Ireland is here).

So this is your chance to put your cities on the Techcrunch Map!

We’re like to hear from founders and investors. We are particularly interested in hearing from diverse founders and investors. These are our humble suggestions for the cities we’d most like to hear from:

Birmingham
Brighton
Bristol & Bath
Cambridge
Cardiff
Liverpool
Manchester
Newcastle
Oxford
Reading and Thames valley
York

If you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of the above cities please fill out the survey form here.

The more founders/investors we hear from in a particular city, the more likely it is that city will be featured in TechCrunch.

This is the follow-up to the huge survey of investors (see also below) we’ve done over the last six or more months, largely in capital cities.

These formed part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing regularly for ExtraCrunch, our subscription service that unpacks key issues for startups and investors.

In the first wave of surveys, the cities we wrote about were largely capitals. You can see them listed here.

This time, we will be surveying founders and investors in Europe’s other cities to capture how European hubs are growing, from the perspective of the people on the ground.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how your city will evolve.

We leave submissions mostly unedited and are generally looking for at least one or two paragraphs in answers to the questions.

So if you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of these cities please fill out our survey form here.

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email [email protected] and/or reply on Twitter to @mikebutcher.

The TechCrunch Survey of Tech Startup Hubs in England and Wales

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey European founders and investors in cities outside the major European capitals.

Over the next few weeks, we will ask entrepreneurs in these cities to talk about their ecosystems, in their own words. For this survey we are interested in startup hubs in England and Wales. (Scotland will follow, and Northern Ireland is here).

So this is your chance to put your cities on the Techcrunch Map!

We’re like to hear from founders and investors. We are particularly interested in hearing from diverse founders and investors. These are our humble suggestions for the cities we’d most like to hear from:

Birmingham
Brighton
Bristol & Bath
Cambridge
Cardiff
Liverpool
Manchester
Newcastle
Oxford
Reading and Thames valley
York

If you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of the above cities please fill out the survey form here.

The more founders/investors we hear from in a particular city, the more likely it is that city will be featured in TechCrunch.

This is the follow-up to the huge survey of investors (see also below) we’ve done over the last six or more months, largely in capital cities.

These formed part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing regularly for ExtraCrunch, our subscription service that unpacks key issues for startups and investors.

In the first wave of surveys, the cities we wrote about were largely capitals. You can see them listed here.

This time, we will be surveying founders and investors in Europe’s other cities to capture how European hubs are growing, from the perspective of the people on the ground.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how your city will evolve.

We leave submissions mostly unedited and are generally looking for at least one or two paragraphs in answers to the questions.

So if you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of these cities please fill out our survey form here.

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email [email protected] and/or reply on Twitter to @mikebutcher.

Isotropic Systems raises $40 million for a satellite antenna that could make the most of new constellations

UK-based Isotropic Systems has raised a $40 million funding in an “oversubscribed” round that the startup says will help it get its next-generation broadband terminal to the production phase by its 2022 target. The funding, a Series B that brings the company’s total raised to $60 million, was led by SES and included participation form Boeing HorizonX, Space Angels, Orbital Ventures on the venture side, and that includes UK government grant support as well.

Isotropic’s business is centred around a new type of broadband terminal it’s developing that can communicate across multiple frequencies, making it possible for it to connect to more than one satellite network at the same time without any loss in signal quality or network speed for any individual connection. The final product would then offer ground connectivity to customers that could potentially maintain connections with more than one of the emerging satellite broadband networks in development, including those being set up by OneWeb, SpaceX, Intelsat, SES, Amazon and more.

The startup will be stand-in cup a 20,000 square-foot testing and prediction facility near Reading in the UK, and expects to have the first operational version of its ground terminal in production by 2022. If its final product works as advertised, it could be a major boon both for satellite network connectivity providers and for clients, since it would mean that customers who can afford the service don’t have to either select from among the available options, and can instead use one hardware solution to connect to multiple in order to take advantage of potential speed benefits, as well as network redundancy.

The benefits are obvious, provided the financials make sense. Imagine, for instance, using onboard wifi on an international flight. Typically, these networks have been unreliable to say the least. Coverage and quality drop-outs are common, and speeds tend to be weak in even the best of cases. Networks like Starlink aim to correct a lot of these legacy problems, but even better would be a solution that offers connection to multiple satellite networks simultaneously, switching between each connection as necessary to maintain the best possible network quality – and potentially combining available bandwidth when possible to boost speeds.

Isotropic’s potential customer list for such an offering spans military, government, and civilian markets, across both broadband and low-data IoT networks. This latest funding should help it prove its groundbreaking technology can attain the production scale and efficacy required to live up to its promise.

Google launches ‘Read Along,’ a free app that helps young children practice reading

Google today is launching a new app, Read Along, that aims to help elementary school students practice their reading skills and stay educationally engaged amid school closures due to coronavirus. The new Android app is based on Google’s existing application, Bolo, which launched in India last year with a catalog of read-along stories in both English and Hindi. The updated and rebranded version is now globally available with support for 9 languages. 

Like Bolo, Read Along also leverages Google’s speech recognition and text-to-speech to help kids learn to read.

The app includes a built-in reading assistant named Diya. As kids read aloud, Diya detects if the child is struggling with a passage and can jump in with positive reinforcement or help. At any time, the child can ask Diya to help them read a sentence or pronounce a word they don’t know.

As children progress in the app, they’re presented with mini word games and earn in-app prizes as they improve their skills.

Google says the app was built with children’t privacy in mind and is able to work without either Wi-Fi or data. The voice data is analyzed in real-time on the device, and is not synced, stored or analyzed on Google’s servers. The company also stresses that it’s not using a voice sample from the kids to make the product better.

The app doesn’t include advertising or in-app purchases, either. Parents can opt to connect to the internet if they want to download additional stories, but there isn’t a charge.

At launch, Read Along offers around 500 stories and the catalog is continually expanded with new books.

Since its debut as Bolo in March 2019, Google says feedback from parents was encouraging, prompting it to bring the app to new markets. While in India, “Bolo” is broadly understood to mean “speak,” Google rebranded the app to Read Along to resonate with parents and children around the world. The app has also been updated with an enhanced library, new games and other user interface improvements since launch.

The new Read Along app is now globally available, except in the Philippines, Colombia and Denmark and offers stories in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.

The app is a free download on Google Play for children ages 5 and up.

Inkitt raises $16M led by Kleiner Perkins to publish crowdsourced novels in ‘mini-episodes’

The traditional world of publishing has been challenged hard by the digital revolution. Reading as a pastime has been in significant decline, in part because of the proliferation of screens and options for what to watch and do on them. On the other hand, Amazon has led the charge in changing the economics of publishing: the returns on book sales, and profits to publishers and writers, have all seen margins squeezed in the e-reader universe.

A Berlin-based startup called Inkitt has built a crowdsourced publishing platform to buck those trends. It believes that there is still a place for reading in our modern world, if it’s presented in the right way (more on that below), and today it is announcing a $16 million round of funding that underscores its success to date — the Inkitt community today has 1.6 million readers and 110,000 writers with some 350,000 uploaded stories, with a run-rate of $6 million from a new “bite-sized”, immersive reading app it launched earlier this year called Galatea — and its ambitions going forward.

How big are those ambitions? Ali Albazaz, Inkitt’s founder and CEO, said the mission is to build the “Disney of the 21st century.” Digital novels are just the beginning, in his view: plans include a move into audio, TV, games and film, “and maybe even theme parks.”

But before we ride a rollercoaster based on The Millennium Wolves — one of the best sellers on the platform, with $1 million in sales in the first six months of its release; 24-year-old author Sapir Englard is using her royalties to finance her jazz studies at Berklee in Boston, Massachusetts — Inkitt is starting small.

In addition to continuing to search for authors that might make good Galatea fodder, it’s going to add 10 new languages in addition to English, along with more data science to improve readership and connecting audiences with the stories that are most engaging to them. The company has sourced some of its most successful works from places like India and Israel, so the thinking is that it’s time to make sure non-English readers in those countries are also getting a look in.

“It’s a long plan, and we’re working on it step by step,” Albazaz said in an interview this week. “We are looking for the best talents and the best stories, wherever they are being told. We want to find them, unearth them and turn them into globally successful franchises.”

The Series A is being led by Kleiner Perkins, with participation also from HV Holtzbrinck Ventures, angel investor Itai Tsiddon, Xploration Capital, Redalpine Capital, Speedinvest, and Earlybird. Inkitt is not disclosing its valuation, but it had raised $5 million before this (including this seed round led by Redalpine).

Fiction for the people

Inkitt got its start several years ago with a very basic idea: an app for people (usually unsigned authors) to upload excerpts of fictional works in progress, or entire fiction manuscripts — novels specifically — to connect them with readers to provide feedback. It would gather data that it collected from these readers to provide more insights into what people wanted to read, to feed its algorithm, and to give feedback to the writers.

It was a simple concept that competed with a plethora of other places where unpublished writers can get their work out there (including Kindle).

But then, six months ago, that concept of data-based, crowdsourced writing and reading took an interesting turn with the launch of Galatea.

With this, Inkitt selects the stories that perform the best on its first app — most readers, most often completed reading, best feedback, most recommended, and so on — and its in-house team of editors and developers reformat them for Galatea as short-form, bite-sized “mini episodes” that come with specific effects attuned to each page you read to make the experience more immersive.

This includes features like sound, haptic effects like the phone vibrating with crashes and heartbeats, fire spreading across the screen in a burning moment, and a requirement for users to swipe to proceed to the next section. (It’s a fitting name for the app: Galatea was the ivory statue that Pygmalion carved that came to life.)

IMG A405C80C7A84 1

As Albazaz describes it, Galatea was created as a response to the generation of consumers whose attention is constantly being diverted through notifications, and who have become used to getting information in short bursts.

“Nowadays you have Snapchat, Instagram and the rest, and they all send you notifications, but when you read you need a lot of attention,” he said.

So the solution was to cut down the page size to a paragraph at a time.

“Instead of flipping pages as you would on an e-reading app, you flip paragraphs.” These take up no more than about 20% of the screen, he said.

A reader gets one “episode” (about 15 minutes of reading, with several pages of text) free every day, so in theory you could read books on Galatea without paying anything, but typically people buy credits to continue reading a bit more than that each day, and it works out on average to about $12 per book in revenue. Inkitt is now adding multiple thousands of users (installs) each day across its two apps.

In addition to making this about tailoring a reading app to what consumers are most likely to do on a screen today, it’s about rethinking the model for how to source literature to disseminate in the first place.

“We all love stories and the way we create and consume them is evolving continuously,” said KP partner Ilya Fushman. “Inkitt’s rich and dynamic story format is rapidly capturing the imagination of a new generation of readers. Their content marketplace is connecting consumers with authors around the globe to entertain and democratize publishing.”

To date, the focus has very much been on original content that Inkitt has sourced itself. The basic model leaves a lot on the table, though. For one, what about all of the literature that has already been published in the world that either hasn’t really hit the right chord yet with readers, or classics, or popular works that might just be a little more interesting with the Galatea treatment?

On the other hand, the Galatea model seems to be inherently biased towards the most obvious “hits” — page turners that are engaging from the get-go, or are written on themes that have already proven to be popular. What about the wider body of literature that might not be accessible page-turners but are definitely worthwhile reading, stories that might one day become a part of the literary canon. For every Harry Potter series, some still want and need a Finnegan’s Wake or Milkman.

Albazaz has an answer for both of those: he says that his startup has already been approached by a number of publishers to work on ways of using its platform for their own works, and so that is something you might imagine will get turned on down the line. And he acknowledged the blockbuster element of the work on the platform now, but said that as it grows and scales its audience, it will be looking for works that appeal to a wider range of tastes.

The company’s business is a veritable David to Amazon’s Goliath, but one thing Inkitt has going for it is that it offers those who will take a chance on its platform a promise of making a good return.

Albazaz claims that the average writer on Galatea earns 30 to 50 times more than what would be earned via Amazon, which he calls “a horrible partner to work with as a publisher.” He wouldn’t comment exactly on the royalties split is on Inkitt, or whether that higher figure is due to more readers or a better cut (or both), except that he said that there are simply “more readers” of your work, “making you more money.”

It’s also a more flexible platform in another regard: if you want to publish elsewhere at the same time, you can. “No one is locked in,” he said. “Our mission statement, which we have across the wall in our office, is to be the fairest and most objective publisher. That’s the only way you will discover hidden talents.”

Storytelling community Wattpad launches Paid Stories and its ad-free subscription globally

Online storytelling community Wattpad, also now a content feeder for streaming services and other media companies, is taking its two consumer-facing paid products global. Wattpad Premium, the ad-free subscription tier, first launched in 2017 and has only been available in a handful of countries to date. It’s now available to Wattpad’s 70 million-plus worldwide users, as of today. In addition, Wattpad’s Paid Stories, which offers exclusive, paywalled content to readers, is also now available to the global user base.

This product launched last November into beta testing, when it was then called Wattpad Next. It was initially available in the U.S. with plans for a global launch planned for this year.

Technically speaking, Wattpad quietly launched Paid Stories globally last week, but it has now completed its rollout to all users, the company says. The stories give readers another way to support their favorite writers as they can purchase the serialized content either when the story is finished, or as it’s still being written. This past month, readers spend more than 5.5 million minutes on Paid Stories, the company says.

Users purchase access to the stories using Wattpad’s virtual currency, Coins. These Coins are sold in packs that start at $0.99 for 9 Coins, and go as high as $7.99 for 230 Coins.

With the global expansion, the two products are also being better integrated.

Screen Shot 2019 07 18 at 10.31.39 AMNow, Wattpad Premium subscribers will receive discounted Coins to buy the Paid Stories. They also receive bonus Coins — up to 66% more free Coins, the company says — every time they buy a Coin package to unlock a Paid Story.

“Our vision at Wattpad is to entertain and connect the world through stories, creating the best platform and community on the planet for every type of reader and writer,” said Wattpad General Manager, Jeanne Lam. “Every innovation and initiative at Wattpad supports that vision while improving the experience for users. Wattpad Premium and Wattpad Paid Stories give users everywhere more control over their Wattpad experience and options to enjoy the platform in new ways — whether it’s uninterrupted, ad-free reading or the chance to support the writers who make those stories possible.”

The products do generate some revenue for the company — Wattpad is No. 11 Top Grossing app in the Books category on the App Store and No. 8 on Google Play. However, the company’s bigger business these days is its content deals. Wattpad earlier this year inked a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television, and has a development deal with Universal Cable Productions, among others. Internationally, it’s working with iflix, Bavaria Fiction, Huayi Brothers Korea, Penguin Random House India, Mediaset, NL Film, Mediacorp, and eOne.

Wattpad’s stories have been turned into feature films, as well as movies and TV shows for streaming services like Netflix (The Kissing Booth) and Hulu (Light as a Feather).

It now has its own print publishing arm, too, with Wattpad Books.

These broader efforts capitalize on Wattpad’s generally younger and devoted fanbase.

For example, one of the more popular Wattpad Books titles, The QB Bad Boy & Me by Tay Marley, was read more than 26.3 million times on Wattpad, and will become available in book form on August 20, 2019.

Google’s latest app, Rivet, uses speech processing to help kids learn to read

Rivet, a new app from Google’s in-house incubator, wants to help children struggling to read. The app hails from Area 120 — Google’s workshop for experimental projects — and includes over 2,000 free books for kids as well as an in-app assistant that can help kids when they get stuck on a word by way of advanced speech technology.

For example, if the child is having difficulties with a word they can tap it to hear it pronounced or they can say it themselves out loud to be shown in the app which parts were said correctly and which need work.

There are also definitions and translations for over 25 languages included in the app, in order to help kids — and especially non-native speakers — to better learn reading.

For younger readers, there’s a follow-along mode where the app will read the stories aloud with the words highlighted so the child can match up the words and sounds. When kids grow beyond needing this feature, parents can opt to disable follow-along mode so the kids have to read for themselves.

While there are a number of e-book reading apps aimed at kids on the market today, Rivet is interesting for its ability to leverage advances in voice technology and speech processing.

Starting today on Android and (soon) iOS, Rivet will be able to offer real-time help to kids when they tap the microphone button and read the page aloud. If the child hits a word and starts to struggle, the assistant will proactively jump in and offer support. This is similar to how parents help children to read — as the child reaches a word they don’t know or can’t say, the parent typically corrects them.

Rivet says all the speech processing takes place on the device to protect children’s privacy and its app is COPPA-compliant.

When the child completes a page, they can see which words they read correctly, and which they still need to work on. The app also doles out awards by way of points and badges, and personalizes the experience using avatars, themes and books customized to the child’s interests and reading level.

Other surprises and games keep kids engaged with the app and continuing to read.

According to Rivet’s Head of Tech and Product Ben Turtel, the team wanted to work on reading because it’s a fundamental skill — and one that needs to be mastered to learn just about everything else.

“Struggling readers,” he says, “are unlikely to catch up and four times less likely to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, 64 percent of fourth-grade students in the United States perform below the proficient level in reading,” Turtel explains.

Rivet is not the first app from Google aimed at tackling reading. An app called Bolo offers a similar feature set, but is aimed at kids in India, instead.

While Bolo was not an Area 120 project, others from the incubator have focused on education like learn-to-code app Grasshopper, or used speech processing technology, like customer service phone system CallJoy.

Rivet was previously spotted in the wild during beta trials this year, but is now publicly available and a free download on both Google Play and the Apple App Store across 11 countries, including the U.S.

 

Apple to close Texture on May 28, following launch of Apple News+

A year ago, Apple acquired the digital newsstand app Texture to form the basis of its new subscription-based service, Apple News+, which launched on Monday. As some have expected, the standalone Texture app will soon shut down as a result. According to emails sent to current Texture subscribers pointing to a FAQ on the company’s website, Texture’s last day of service will be May 28, 2019. Existing customers will be offered a one-month free trial to Apple News+ to make the jump.

A closure like this was bound to come. It doesn’t make sense for Apple to continue to operate both Texture and Apple News.

But not everyone is thrilled about this change, of course.

Specifically, Android users and other subscribers without any Apple devices will now no longer have a way to access Texture, they’ve realized. That means they’ll lose access to the service entirely when it closes down in May (unless they buy a Mac or iOS device.)

These customers were early adopters of subscription-based news reading. Many have had their Texture accounts for years. And it’s clear that most were holding out hope that Apple would launch a web or Android version of Apple News, or at least continue to operate Texture until such a thing was ready.

It wouldn’t have been entirely unprecedented for Apple to go this route.

Apple today runs an Apple Music Android app, for example, and offers an Android app for its Beats Pill speakers. It also provides desktop software to non-Mac users with iTunes for Windows, for example. And with the launch of Apple TV+, the company is seemingly embracing non-Apple platforms by rolling out an Apple TV app to Vizio, Samsung and LG smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku.

It’s also bit surprising that Texture’s existing customers aren’t being offered a better incentive to switch to Apple News+, as a way to reward their loyalty or to make up for the frustrations around having to switch apps – especially since their favorites and collections will not transition to the Apple News app. Instead, the Texture email says they’ll be offered a “one month free trial” to test out the service. That’s the same deal all new Apple News+ subscribers get.

After the first month, the subscription will auto-renew at $9.99 per month.

Apple News+, however, does deliver more value than Texture, in terms of content selection.

Instead of only offering access to hundreds of magazines for one low subscription price, Apple News+ subscribers can also read articles from a handful of newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Toronto Star, as well as online publications like theSkimm, The Highlight by Vox, New York Magazine’s sites Vulture, The Cut and Grub Street. TechCrunch’s own subscription product, Extra Crunch, is also participating in Apple News+.

It’s also available for the Mac for the first time.

That doesn’t help non-Apple customers, though.

Those losing access to Texture as a result of Apple’s decision to make Apple News+ an Apple device-only service do at least have something of an alternative with Scribd. Its subscription service offers unlimited access to audiobooks, ebooks and magazines for $8.99/month, or can be bundled with The NYT for $12.99/month. However, it doesn’t have the same range of magazines as on Texture, so switchers may lose access to several of their favorite titles.