What vocabulary should be in my child's AAC system?

When considering vocabulary in an AAC system, we want to be sure it's a robust vocabulary.  When I first began in this field, more years ago than I care to count, focus was very much on providing a small set of symbols, all nouns, primarily to request.  There has been a significant shift away from this over the years.  We now better now.  We know we need to provide our kids with a system for now and for later, we need to provide vocabulary that allows for modeling and use of a variety of communicative functions, and we need to provide more than nouns.  But how do we do this?

Core and Fringe Vocabulary

There are two main categories of vocabulary that we consider when thinking about AAC systems:  Core and Fringe Vocabulary.  Core vocabulary is a small set of words that makes up 80% of what we say.  These words include pronouns, verbs, descriptive words, question words, prepositions.  Fringe vocabulary is made up primarily of nouns and makes up about 20% of what we say.  Given this 80/20 split, when we are teaching vocabulary to our AAC we users, we want our teaching focus to be 80% on core vocabulary and 20% on fringe vocabulary.

Personal core is vocabulary that is made up of core vocabulary as well as words important to the child.  Things like favorites foods, people, toys, characters may be on this list.

Why is This Important?

We need to be teaching children to communicate for a variety of functions from the start.  If we only focus on nouns, we are really focusing on teaching requesting.  We need to teach ways to protest, refuse, self-advocate, comment, ask questions, share information, tell jokes, give opinions and the list goes on.

 

Additionally, children need more words so this language can be modeled by communication partners as children learn to use AAC.  Many years ago, when I entered this field, choice boards were a focus of AAC, and many thought this was enough, of that a child had to prove use of the choice board before moving on.  If a child only has access to 4 or 6 words on a page, all nouns, modeling and opportunity to communicate for a variety of functions is going to be greatly restricted.  think about going to a restaurant.  Consider what can be communicated with the following boards.  The first board is a core vocabulary board from the Project Core website, which can be found here http://www.project-core.com/36-location/.  The second board is a choice board, using fringe vocabulary.  Which board would be more helpful have with you when you go out to eat?  Which board allows you to refuse or protest?  Which board allows you to ask a question?  Ask for something you need?  Indicate that there is a problem?

 

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This is a bit of an extreme example to illustrate a point.  We do need to have some fringe vocabulary, and this is by no means suggesting that we should completely throw fringe vocabulary out the window.  that 80/20 balance that was suggested above is important.  A choice board alone is not sufficient for communication.  That core vocabulary is essential to be able to communicate using aided communication for a variety of functions.


Tanya Keller

Meet Tanya, our pediatric speech language pathologist and AAC specialist. Tanya moved from Boston to San Diego. She earned her Master's degree from Emerson College in Boston, in Communication Disorders in 2004 and a second master's degree in Assistive Technology from Simmons College in Boston, in 2012. Tanya has provided speech and language services for children who have complex communication needs, using low and/or high tech augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with varying diagnoses. Tanya has been mentored by experts in Rett Syndrome and complex communication needs. She is PODD trained and attends the yearly assistive technology conferences. She has experience using a variety of AAC devices and working with alternative access, including eye gaze and switch use. In her free time, Tanya enjoys exploring San Diego, going to the beach and spending time with her dog.

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