Why is Core Vocabulary Important For an AAC User?

Core wordsCore words are the small number of words that are used most frequently in our conversations. About 80% of the words we speak are core words. They can be used across contexts, and can have more than one meaning. Pronouns, common verbs, prepositions, and helping verbs are part of core vocabulary. Examples are I, you, help, that, me, mine, stop, go, get, etc. 

Significance of Core Words

A decade ago, AAC systems gave users a few core words with a wide range of nouns. For example, the user was given the core word ‘like’ to use with several nouns such as ‘cookie’, ‘red’, ‘football’, ‘rose’, etc. This seemed to be enough for common communicative functions such as requesting. This approach, however, limited the communication ability of the user. 

Current AAC strategies are based on the realization that teaching core words open up communication opportunities for the users. By understanding the usage of the word ‘like’, the user can use it in different settings and contexts. Focus on teaching core words gives the user greater communication autonomy, which is one of the fundamental goals of AAC.

Considerations in Teaching Core Words

We know that teaching core words to AAC users gives them more independence and expands the possibilities of communication. But, when it comes to implementing this strategy, SLPs and special educators are often scrambling to find suitable resources. This is because teaching core words is tougher than teaching nouns.

Most nouns are tangible and easier to understand for an AAC user who is learning to communicate. You can show a book to the child while teaching the word ‘book’. The child sees it, and hence can associate the word to the object. Nouns can also be better represented by pictures. This helps the child getting started with symbol-based AAC, easily identify the pictures and learn the corresponding nouns. 

Core words are more abstract and not represented well by pictures. Adding to the complexity is the fact that core words can be used in multiple ways. For example, look at the word ‘give’ which has different meanings in each of the following usages.

Give                    – to present something to someone

Give up               – surrender

Give out              – be exhausted

Give it a shot      – try

Give away          – to give things for free

Teaching Core vocabulary – Best Practices

Here are a few things to keep in mind while teaching core words:

  • Quick Access to Core WordsQuick access to core words

Choose an AAC system, such as Avaz app, that is designed such that core words are easily accessible. The user should not have to navigate a lot to access the words they use frequently. The AAC app should also allow for inclusion of a huge repository of words. A wider choice of vocabulary imposes fewer restrictions on communication. You can also use core vocabulary boards while getting started.

  • Modelling

Neurotypical children learn language by listening to words spoken around them constantly. Similarly, an AAC user must be able to see people around them using the AAC system for communication. Modelling or Aided Language Stimulation is the practice of communication partners using AAC to show the user how it is done.

While teaching core words, it is important to model as often as possible. Mealtimes and play times are great opportunities for modelling core words. For example, you can teach the child the core word ‘more’, by asking, ‘Do you want more salad?’ You can say, ‘I think I would like more pasta’, and help yourself to another serving of pasta. 

  • Setting Realistic Goals

It takes neurotypical children several months of exposure to spoken language before they attempt to utter a word. So, be patient and confident that your child will be able to acquire core word skills with time. Do not get flustered over perceived delays. Comparing your child’s progress with that of another is a futile exercise. This is because each child has a different learning curve for these skills, depending on considerations like their cognitive abilities.

Since core words are difficult to teach and comprehend, your child may take a while to grasp the concept. So, you must ensure that you model consistently, and give them enough time. Remember to give them exposure to more words, as they begin to gain an understanding of the words you’ve been already teaching them. By giving AAC users access to an extensive core vocabulary, we equip them with the power of boundless expression!

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