AAC for Speech-Language Pathologists

AAC: Core Vocabulary

We all need everyday words.

Everyday Words

Without Core Vocabulary, it is impossible to discuss ideas that go beyond the here and now. Imagine you are an AAC user and have only the following words: pizza, dog, ball, chocolate, music, and chips. These nouns, often called fringe vocabulary, cannot be put together to form a sentence. But these are the types of words we often find in children’s communication systems.  What function do they serve?

When you have only nouns, you might only be able to label and request. When requesting is the primary function of a communication system, is it being used more for true communication or simply compliance?  Requesting is one important function of communication, but human communication is so much more.

What types of words do AAC users need? Core Vocabulary consists of high frequency, everyday words. These are the words that combine to create phrases and sentences. These words form the DNA of language. Research tells us that around 200 words make up 80% of what we say. Core Vocabulary includes words such as go, make, eat, see, have, you, I, watch, big, small, up, and down.  Combine these words with the fringe vocabulary above, and you can make sentences such as, “I made a big pizza and the dog ate it!” With words such as these, we can complain, greet, joke, ask questions, and relate to one another.

Poster with "Only having nouns is like having a box with only white crayons. Give me core vocabulary. I need all the words. images of white versus colorful crayons.

“Why don’t we just put sentences on the device?”

This is a frequently asked question when programming communication systems for a person.  Phrases and sentences can play an important role on a communication system, but should not only be what is available to the communicator.  It is good to have Core Vocabulary available. It is good to have some social language available.  A combination can be a useful setup for many individuals.  Social interactions are speedy! Many apps have a social folder containing such greetings, “How’s it hanging?”, “What’s up?” 

But if you only have pre-set phrases, you can never say anything new. That gets boring pretty quickly. Let’s say I have a pre-set sentence to request pizza. What if I don’t want pizza that day? What if I am really bored of pizza? Or if I want pineapple on my pizza? All language users need a way to engage in Spontaneous Novel Utterance Generation (SNUG). This includes those with emergent language. If they are at the one-word stage, we will still want to model two to three words. If new communicators don’t have access to language, they won’t have a way to learn language.  Language is at the heart of social connection and at the heart of learning.  If we don’t provide access to generative language, we are not meeting our students’ needs. 


Check out the core vocabulary lists on Gail Van Tatenhove’s website: http://www.vantatenhove.com/resources

Additional information and examples of communicative functions: https://www.assistiveware.com/learn-aac/consider-communication-functions 

Core Vocabulary Poster