PrAACtical Thinking Explicitly Speaking: Vocabulary Teaching in AAC

Published on November 20th, 2012 | by Carole Zangari

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Explicitly Speaking: Vocabulary Teaching in AAC

An essential part of the model we shared for AAC semantic intervention is Step 2, teaching the new words with explicit instruction activities. In our posts, explicit instruction refers to the process of designing and using carefully planned sequence of empirically-supported teaching activities. Though focused on reading, not vocabulary, development, this PowerPoint presentation by Dr. Anita Archer gives an excellent overview of the characteristics of explicit instruction.

In our initial teaching of new words, we to be sure that the learners have frequent opportunities to respond: Active participation is critical at this point. We have to give the learner a lot of opportunities to say the word (e.g.,“resume”) and tell about it (e.g., “keep going,” “start again and not stop,” “verb”, etc.). We want to elicit a lot of responses so that we can monitor their performance. That allows us to provide feedback that is affirmative when the learners respond correctly (e.g., “Good! You remembered that we kept going after the announcements-we resumed our word work”), and corrective feedback when their responses miss the mark. We try to keep the pace as brisk as we can given the needs of the learner, as that tends to help keep them engaged. Since we’re trying to get a lot of word practice in rather quickly, it helps to have response mode that is easy for the learner to produce.

Explicit instruction follows a period of focused (aided) language stimulation, where the word is first introduced, explained using a student-friendly definition, and linked with known words, personal experiences, etc. Depending on the level of the learner, we may then need to engage them in Active Learning Experiences to make the word meaning come to life.Explicitly Speaking: Vocabulary Teaching in AAC

Active Language Experiences: Learners who are at the earlier stages of language development need hands-on, concrete experiences to make word meaning clear. For these learners, explicit instruction begins with a variety of activities designed around the specific words. We’re all used to these kinds of activities: holding ice and tasting popsicles as we talk about ‘cold;’ racing cars and running around to talk about ‘fast,’ etc. Many of you do this all the time, particularly with younger kids. One quick point: Contrast is important here. Cold alone is okay, but cold contrasted with warm or hot really makes the point clear. Running fast is okay, but slowing it down, then speeding up is even better. And all the while, finding ways to say the target words, using aided language input, when possible. Not all learners need this level of concreteness in an activity, but many benefit from it.

Beyond that, we can use a variety of other activities that are more indirect and allow us to have metalingistic Explicitly Speaking: Vocabulary Teaching in AACconversations. Here are some examples of other kinds activities that we might do in as we move into explicit instruction.

  1. You Be The Judge: Learner listens as we use the word in sentences and judges whether we are correct or incorrect using a quick signal (e.g., thumbs up/down; yes/no message, visual support with right/wrong, etc.).
  2. Target Word Collage: Learner is given a set of pictures or words some of which are positive examples of the new word and some of which are clearly not. We go through this together and discuss whether each one belongs in the collage we’re making for the target word.  
  3. Vocabulary Sort: As in the collage activity, the learner is given a set of pictures or words that are or are not associated with the target word. He/she is also given categories so that the pictures can be sorted (e.g., abundant/not abundant; hostile/not hostile; rapid/not rapid) Together, we sort the pictures, discussing why we believe they go into one category or the other.
  4. Vocabulary Sort with Antonyms: Same as above but using words with opposite meanings (e.g., abundant/scarce, hostile/friendly; rapid/slow)
  5. You Decide: The learner is given sticky notes with the target word on them (e.g., “effort”). Together, we go through a book, magazine, or other materials and discuss whether that page/image should be labelled with the target word.
  6. Yes/No Questions: Ask Yes/No questions in which the learner has to know the meaning of the target word in order to answer it correctly. E.g., “Should you ASSUME that all dogs are friendly? [why/why not?] “Is it a good idea to eat RAPIDLY?  [why/why not?] “Would your mom be happy if you had an ABUNDANCE of bad grades?”  [why/why not?]  
  7. Rating Scales: Use scales with a continuum of responses (e.g., love it/okay/hate it; always/sometimes/never) to answer questions about key words (e.g., “How would you feel if..Your dad was persuaded to buy a TV?; Your friend berated you?; Your teacher produced a very hard test?”).  

For vocabulary instruction to really be robust, we have to give our AAC learners A LOT of these kinds of experiences. Explicit instruction isn’t over when we’ve done one or two activities. Most learners will need repetition with variety.

One Very Important Note: With all of these activities, the key to making them useful for true vocabulary learning is the dialogue. Just sorting the pictures into piles is a task, but when we use that task as a context for conversation about a word, deeper learning results. The learning comes not from the activity itself, but the dialogue around the activity.  

“That’s fine for some kids, but my learner won’t understand.” That’s something we hear a lot, and I’m not quite sure how to answer it delicately. Let me just say this: My guess is that more kids have been harmed by us underestimating their abilities than the reverse. It is true that they may not understand. But they won’t ever get to the point of understanding unless we teach them. So, if you’re worried about them not understanding, there are two things you can do: Increase the amount of vocabulary instruction and increase the amount of aided language input. Both will help boost the learner’s comprehension.

We’ll talk more about activities for vocabulary practice later in the week. For now, we’d love to hear about your favorite activities for semantics.

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About the Author

Carole Zangari

Carole Zangari has been involved in the practice and teaching of AAC for over 20 years. She is a professor of speech-language pathology and has been fortunate to have been able to introduce many children and adults to the world of AAC. "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Theodore Roosevelt



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