AAC for Speech-Language Pathologists

AAC & The Descriptive Teaching Method

Say what you see to show what you know.

Access to Descriptive Language

AAC users need to learn language, not just make rote responses. They need the ability to say new things and not just mechanically respond. 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.  Core includes words like need, do, want, see, you, I, don’t and make.

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 learning. I might use core to say, “crown bug feel sick scared.” Grammatical? Perhaps not, but it gets the point across. 

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

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

Specialized Vocabulary  Descriptive Vocabulary
Distance learning School home on computer
Zoom See teacher video
Pandemic Many people sick

“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. 

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

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!).

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 they genuinely understand and give us measurable information about their 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. 

Core vocabulary words largely correspond to early reading lists, such as the Dolch word list.  This 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).

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

High Contrast Describe an Elephant poster


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

AAC Community article on Core Vocabulary.