AAC and Descriptive Teaching: Let Me Show You What I Know

A Cartoon of an elephant with descriptive words around it; "Big, smart, heavy, gray animal."

During the pandemic, speech therapists and teachers have understandably focused more on the HOW of teaching than the WHAT. They have been challenged like never before. Google Classroom, Whiteboard, Jamboard, screen mirroring, document cameras…. Who would have imagined that these would become such familiar tools?   Most of us will continue to need these remote teaching tools well into the fall. 2020, can we have a do over please?

As I think about September, I have begun to think more about the WHAT again. AAC learners need to learn language. They need the ability to say new things, and not just mechanically respond to rote questions. I think many SLPs are now familiar with the concept of Core Vocabulary. These are high frequency words that form the DNA of language. Using core words, we have the ability to produce spontaneous novel utterances.  

All AAC users deserve access to core. Human language is generative, and we need to be able to say new things literally all the time.  Imagine having only pre-programmed phrases and sentences, and being faced with the CoronaVirus pandemic? How would you talk about it?

Core language systems don’t come with the words “SARS CoV-2” and “epidemiology” as part of their vocab sets.  How can we talk about something medical, or academic, without this specialized vocabulary? By using core words to describe concepts, we allow the student to participate in the learning. 

AAC Message: New Bad Crown Bug

(cropped screenshot from Speak For Yourself! AAC app)

Let’s compare the use of descriptive vocabulary instead of specialized words:

Specialized Vocabulary  Descriptive Vocabulary
Novel CoronaVirus New Bad Crown Bug
Shelter in Place Stay home don’t touch new people
Pandemic Many people sick

AAC device with message: stay home don't touch new people

“Why not just put the academic words on the talker?” 

With limited space, “one and done” words are simply not that useful. Can you imagine programming yet another set of topical words for each new unit in the classroom? That would be tons of work and very confusing. Imagine adding new characters to your computer keyboard every week. Try typing an essay! 

As well, simply referencing these new words on the AAC device does nothing to demonstrate what the student has actually learned.  If we instead describe a new concept, we show that we understand it. 

AAC device with message: stay home don't touch new people

We can positively impact AAC learners by using this Descriptive Teaching Model (Van Tatenhove, 2008).  One natural result is that we help grow a student’s language skills.  By describing key concepts, we are naturally combining words to say something new. That is the essence of generative language. The use of descriptive language can then be generalized outside of the classroom, to recess or a class trip (these will happen again someday!).

Two thought bubbles: "Creature, drink blood, night" and "Oh, you want to be a vampire for Halloween. Cool!"

Schools are charged with demonstrating student mastery of certain grade-based concepts. How do we accomplish this with our AAC users? By using descriptive language, the student can show us what she genuinely understands and give us measurable information about her academic performance.

Teachers and therapists can take Common Core standards and translate them into core words. These become the basis for modeling during academic instruction.  A bonus is that the student gets to focus on the concepts, and not just on learning new navigation patterns on their device. It’s a win win. 

Also, core vocabulary words largely correspond to some of the early reading lists, such as the Dolch word list.  The Dolch list is also based on high frequency words. There is overlap. Pointing this out can help you get “buy in” from teachers.  By using the Descriptive Teaching Model, you are actually making their lives easier.

Now, how do we make this fun? We want to play with language, not engage in drill and response. There are loads of activities that can involve students in meaningful learning. We can go on a core word scavenger hunt. Or try a verbal version of Guess Who.  The AAC user names 5 descriptive words and the rest of the class has to guess what or whom they are referring to.  Carry this over into Predictable Chart writing to work on literacy skills.

Don’t forget to use the new https://shared.tarheelreader.org! The books come with core word icons from Project Core and tips for commenting on what you read.

Create a classroom Word Wall for the core words of the week. Students can hunt for related pictures in magazines and create a descriptive collage.  A talking picture album can be used to “collect” pictures or items related to what we’ve learned.  Click on the link below to read an article on Strategies For Teaching Core Vocabulary Throughout the School Day (Smolen & Helland, 2015).

Page from Smolen and Helland article on teaching core vocabulary throughout the school day.

Click here for a copy of the Describe an Elephant poster.

A Cartoon of an elephant with descriptive words around it; "Big, smart, heavy, gray animal."


Gail Van Tatenhove has a series of Youtube videos illustrating descriptive teaching. Here is the first:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40p5SToHmzI 

Gail Van Tatenhove’s website has many free resources for AAC implementation: http://www.vantatenhove.com/main

This webinar is  part of ASHA’s Learning Pass series (not free): A Roadmap to Integrating AAC Into the Classroom (WEB16207-IND)
Presenter: Lauren Kravetz Bonnet, PhD, CCC-SLP
Fliphtml5.com. (n.d.). August /September 2016 – Rachel Smolen and Kathryn Helland | FlipHTML5. Free HTML5 Flip Book Maker; Interactive HTML5 Digital Publishing Platform for Magazines, Catalogs, and more | FlipHTML5. https://fliphtml5.com/yciqt/vzyg

Van Tatenhove, Gail. Aided Language Stimulation and the Descriptive Teaching Model.ASHA 2008 ConferenceChicago: ASHA, 2008


Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

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