The Baby, The Bathwater, and Core Vocabulary
When we first started writing to advocate for core vocabulary, it was as a counterpoint to the noun-heavy, activity-specific AAC supports that were widely used among beginning communicators. Many times, those communication aids were great for getting communication started with our beginning communicators, but limited their ability for generative language development. Adding core vocabulary provided a lot of linguistic power, and for many learners, that’s a great thing. These days, most clinicians serving people with AAC needs are well aware of the need to populate their AAC systems with a sizable array of high-frequency core words. SLPs have, by and large, gotten the message that core vocabulary plays an important role for AAC learners.
In some cases, though, the pendulum has swung a bit too far. An AAC a system built exclusively of single words with only core vocabulary is not likely to meet the needs of most AAC learners. Their systems need to be balanced with three additional elements: fringe vocabulary, prestored phrases/sentences, and alphabet access.
To avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s important to realize that adding core words doesn’t mean that we take away or fail to provide access to other kinds of words.
It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. A system that is rich in core vocabulary doesn’t mean we ignore fringe vocabulary. All learners need words that allow them to speak about the things they hold near and dear: the people/pets in their lives, favorite things, places they like to go, etc.
Beginning communicators are a diverse group. Some move through this stage within a year, but others acquire language skills much more slowly. As we all know, AAC is not a one-size-fits-all venture. Beginning communicators at the earliest stages of language learning need quite a lot of nouns and verbs, especially for things that are highly meaningful to them. Think: favorite foods, toys, characters, people, places, actions, shows, apps, etc. For many beginning communicators, those are the words that make the most sense to start with. Here’s why.
- By nature, they are highly motivating, and we all know the critical role that motivation plays in learning new skills. None of us would bother to learn something new unless we saw the value in it, and AAC learners are no different in that respect.
- They can be represented in a more concrete way, something that speeds the learning process. Photographs or AAC symbols for your friends, family, pets, and favorite things are much easier to recognize than symbols for core words. That transparency can be important in the early stages of communication learning.
Prestored Phrases Sentences
For AAC learners to develop generative language, they need AAC systems that have a lot of single words that can be combined in different ways to make sentences. Core vocabulary provides that, but that doesn’t mean that we would restrict the learner to ONLY single words. Prestored phrases and sentences are very important for most people who use AAC, something we wrote about a few years back.
Prestored sentences are shortcuts, and there are two main reasons why having them make sense for most communicators.
- They require less effort. If you want learners to use their AAC system to express themselves, then at least some of it should be easy. Jeremiah, for example, has a core vocabulary system that he uses fairly well to make requests, direct the actions of others, make some basic comments, and respond to questions. He uses core words (along with fringe words) to do this, and while he still needs support, he is getting more competent every week. In social situations, however, Jeremiah really struggles both because his skills are more limited in this area and also because it causes anxiety. Expecting him to build sentences for social conversations is not likely to be successful – it is too hard at this point in time. He will get there, but for now, we can reduce task difficulty by putting together phrases and sentences like these:
-I have something to tell you.
-How are you?
-Tell me about…
-I did something fun with…(mom, Orit, Sammy)
-When will I see you again?
-See you later.
- They are faster to use. Even when someone can competently build sentences with core and fringe vocabulary, it takes awhile for them to select the words and construct their sentences. In some situations, they need to be able to respond more quickly. Having the option of using a prestored sentence to use in those situations makes it more likely that they can respond to the time demands of those situations.
AAC learners also need access to the alphabet. Some beginning communicators are already showing interest (and skill) with letters and having access to them on their AAC device supports their literacy learning.
But what about those who don’t yet show interest in letters? Do they need the alphabet, too? Probably. As we said before, this is a diverse group of communicators so there is no single answer that fits all learners at this level. For the most part, though, it’s good to provide them with alphabet access so that we can integrate it into our teaching (when appropriate) and so that they can experiment with letters. Will they ever learn to be literate? There are no guarantees, but having those available certainly makes it more likely. If we want them to eventually learn to read and write, let’s give them access to the alphabet so that we can model and teach, and they can explore and experiment.
Remember, using an AAC system rich in core vocabulary doesn’t mean we ignore the need for fringe words, sentences/questions, or the alphabet. All of these elements can and should work together to help our AAC learners communicate more effectively.
Filed under: PrAACtical Thinking
This post was written by Carole Zangari