Hold That Core: When Do You NOT Use a Core Vocabulary Approach?

January 4, 2018 by - 17 Comments

Hold That Core: When Do You NOT Use a Core Vocabulary Approach?
A- A+

Thoughtful interventionists make AAC decisions based on the nature of the situation, not trends or personal preferences. Still, it’s easy to get caught up in the groundswell when you’ve been to a training, gotten hold of a promising resource, or had success with a particular approach. Core vocabulary has done a world of good for the AAC field as a whole and the individual clients we serve. But, like anything else, it’s not appropriate in all situations.

When I was a doctoral student, poring over every issue of the new journal, AAC, I was struck by an editorial Dave Beukelman wrote, entitled “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” They were different times and different issues, but the sentiment still applies.

In some cases, core vocabulary has become a shiny hammer that we seem to hold onto whether or not it will get the job done.

There’s hardly a school or clinic serving kids with AAC needs that hasn’t revised their practices to use AAC systems rich in core vocabulary. And for most students/clients, that’s perfectly fine.

But it’s not always the best fit. Hammers are wonderful. But they’re not the tool of choice if the task is to replace a light socket or drill a hole.

Consider these AAC learners.

Elliot was a first grader who was able to do many things: flash a dazzling smile, grab and hold onto materials on his lap tray, vocalize loudly, visually track peers as they moved around the classroom, reach and take a toy that was offered to him, and laugh in such an engaging way that two girls immediately rushed to his side. What he DIDN’T do, though, was communicate purposefully.

Chloe had a history of significant challenging behavior and had formed deep negative associations with anything that resembled therapy or instruction. By the time she encountered a team who knew how to truly help her, she had a very low tolerance for frustration and got panicky when meeting new professionals. It only took a few minutes for those fight-or-flight feelings to become overwhelming.

At 14 years old, Skyler had a lot of experience with two things: being told what to do and being underestimated. He seemed to come to the conclusion that people just weren’t worth it. Interaction? Why bother?! Nothing good would come of it, so Skyler spent most days withdrawn and shut down.

Elliot, Chloe, and Skyler have tons of potential as learners, but starting them on a core vocabulary rich system wasn’t the way to get them to achieve that potential. Core vocabulary has wonderful advantages, but when faced with students like these, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: What’s the best next step?

For these learners, my priorities are found in these questions:

  • How can I help them WANT to communicate?
  • What can I do to make interacting seem like the best thing since sliced bread?
  • What will it take for them to desire conversational exchanges?

For these learners I’m wondering:

  • What will make them feel successful?
  • How can we get them to see that people are fun and worth the effort?
  • What is the fastest way to get them to the point where they are ready to become active, more effective communicators?
  • How can we make communication irresistible?

For these learners, ‘the best next step’ was all about what they love and crave. Favorite toys, videos, songs, people, places, foods, activities, events, etc. 

All of these are concrete. Specific. Important. Motivating. Fringe vocabulary.

Core vocabulary has wonderful benefits, and I have every expectation that, at some point, these learners will be successful with it. But is it ‘the best next step?’ Not necessarily. 

For Elliot, Chloe, and Skyler, it might be best to give those hammers a rest. There are plenty of other tools for the job. Besides, we can always pick them up again later. 

Hold That Core: When Do You NOT Use a Core Vocabulary Approach?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Filed under: ,

This post was written by Carole Zangari


  • Angela says:

    Love it! Bookmarking it on my iPad and will be sharing frequently.

  • Julie says:

    Was so lovely to read about fringe vocabulary!! So true to my son!! Still emerging with communication, using switches and scanning plus low tech PODD, but have been thinking so need to add extra vocabulary that I know he will want to say, fun, cool things he smiles at hearing from his peers and bro’s and stuff he loves doing!! Thanks for all the info you provide, don’t always get to read or follow , but love it and it helps me to stay positive and motivated to learn and help my son who has very complex communication needs, cvi, cp level IV, fine motor issues, type 1 diabetes, intellectual disabikity …. although I know he knows lots and listens to lots : )!and the list goes on, thanks and look forward to hearing more : )

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Thanks for your comments, Julie! I love hearing about AAC systems that have multiple components that are selected based on both the learner and the communicative context. Simple tools like talking switches area great adjunct to more robust vocabularies that include a range of words and longer messages. As Audra said in her comment, though, we have to be vigilant and guard against people who underestimate our most complex kids and hold them at a lower level of communicative functioning rather than moving them onward and upward. It is a constant worry but the field is maturing and these growing pains are inevitable. Anyway, thanks for following along as time permits!

  • Audra says:

    I have mixed feelings about this article. I feel like it perpetuates stereotypes that keep “certain” children pegged into systems that have limited ability to meet all their needs. Why would core + fringe, a robust vocabulary, not work for them? All kids need a mix of core, fringe, and phrases. Yes, ABSOLUTELY, let’s individualize that for each child but this article could easily be used to prop up a lot of limitations and myths.

    I spend every day supporting children like those you describe — and there are a million ways to use robust language + modeling + creating and reinforcing opportunity to help each of these kiddos be successful as well. I would hate for this to be used as an example of how some kids are just “not ready” to access robust language. I speak from experience, having seen so many children limited by what you say above (we have to teach them why to communicate). Years later, people have still not given them access to robust language. At best, they have a picture board of their favorite nouns — and still no way to tell people stop, don’t, I don’t like it, hurts, I need a break, or any of the other things that someone whose fight/flight is easily activated needs as in your example.

    I think the argument to individualize vocabularies — while maintaining robust language — could be made in a way that doesn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Audra, I appreciate your comments and totally agree that a mix of different types of vocabulary work in most situations (e.g., http://praacticalaac.org/praactical/the-baby-the-bathwater-and-core-vocabulary/). I’m growing increasingly concerned, though, that people are giving up on AAC after a few months of implementing a core vocabulary approach and branding individual clients/students as not able to learn it. I see this most often when professionals have viewed core words as a developmental list and start there for everyone regardless of their individual needs, interests, and abilities. I got two messages just this week about what to do when teams tried a core vocab approach and abandoned it because they weren’t seeing progress after robust implementation since August. The families are understandably devastated and feel that the teams have given up on their kids. My experience has been that when we look at each person individually and meet them where they are, we can optimize their learning rate and steepen the trajectory of their communicative gains. Building joint attention, supporting a love of communication, boosting the frequency of interaction, and creating an atmosphere of engagement can be done with fringe and core vocabulary. I just think we need to be careful not to overgeneralize this and apply a one-size-fits-all approach.


        Thank you so much, Carole, for this article. I see the same situations where well meaning therapists (myself included) go whole hog on kids who aren’t ready for the big core system and then are devastated themselves and have a devastated team and upset parents. I know that in the past I have been very worried about holding students back and not giving them enough, but we need to as you say be careful not to overgeneralize.

  • Amanda Marks says:

    I love the main point of this article and absolutely love the questions you provide that promote boosting the desire to communicate in these kids. Based on ALL of your post, I believe you are saying core vocabulary MIGHT NOT be appropriate for kids like this, but I think some of the post could be perceived as meaning NOT appropriate. I think this was a good reminder, though, that we don’t have to make core work if it isn’t working. I have new plans brewing for a patient of mine already. Thanks!

  • Tricia Sharkey says:

    Excellent point! I am going to share this with all of the SLPs I work with! I am an SLP/AT consultant for a special education cooperative and this ‘hits the nail on the head.’ (pun intended!).

    I try to explain this to many of the professionals that I work with-thanks for putting it into words so nicely 🙂


  • Thanks for this post Carole! This also made me reflect on my training.

    Back in my day…In selecting vocabulary for individuals requiring AAC we looked at developmental and functional approaches. Functional approaches gave access to “coverage vocabulary” and centered on providing access to vocabulary that addressed a person’s immediate communication needs. I feel like your examples, Carole, were aimed at children who had immediate needs that were not going to be met effectively through an approach that would address the most commonly used word or 10 words whether or not they were appropriate to that individual’s situation. That doesn’t mean you would forever ignore core words -(in my day grouped together to be developmental vocabulary).

    Developmental vocabulary would include words that would allow a person to grow in their own language development. These words will VERY likely contain what are now called “core words”, but the order of those words should still consider an individual child and be thoughtfully implemented by a speech-language pathologist. Frequency of use and broad utility is definitely important, but I have at times chose a less frequent relational word in some cases because I knew a child had an intense interest that way. The opening then provided me with a chance to get more two word combinations going later on. The challenge in this approach is that it is incredibly time consuming and requires tremendous knowledge about a child’s interests and environments. It is HARD to do individual programming for each child. Still, for children who use natural speech we do continually encourage following the child’s lead.

    In terms of coverage vocabulary…If there is a fire and someone needs a fire extinguisher, you give it to them. That doesn’t mean you won’t and shouldn’t teach other things later on. It sounds like that is Audra’s point and I think Carole agrees. But I think the way “core words” are characterized as an “approach” rather than as a “frequency of use observation” has put us here. Giving someone access to immediate communication words is planning for today. Giving them access to new and high utility words is a CRITICAL part of planning for tomorrow. We are all trying to do the same thing, but don’t FORCE core words if there are immediate unmet, urgent communication needs that have fringe solutions.

    This information can be referenced through (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2005 3rd Edition and I chose it because it cites references going back to the 80s). There is nothing new about the idea of needing to provide access to commonly used words. We’ve actually had frameworks for this for many years. We just used to consider it as programming for language development and selecting vocabulary for language development. Personally I find the characterization of “core words” as an “approach” imprecise. “Core words” is an observation about the frequency that certain words are used. Developmental vocabulary is a set of vocabulary chosen to assist a child in becoming a person with a range of words to express their feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge about the world. They also allow for the construction of more complex syntactic structures. Yes, many of those words will be “core words.” The fact they they are core is a result of a broader purpose that the words serve. It is the purpose that should drive us. If you lock yourself into an approach and don’t consider the immediate situation or the future you and your client will be stuck.

  • Julia Pearce says:

    Thank you for this post! Sometimes we need to create a way for a person who is non-verbal to express themselves quickly, to show them that communication is worth their time, and to allow them to tell/show us their preferences in what they want to ‘say’. All communication is awesome and worth the effort to create individualized supports for the people we get to work with.

  • I appreciate all the comments as much as this article, since the combined total highlights the complexity of the challenge. I perceive the challenge as modeling language that a student may eventually want to communicate – for example, regardless of how often I model ‘work,’ if it’s modeled while directing the student’s actions (ex. ‘do work now’), the odds that I’m modeling language the student may want to use is very low. I also perceive the opportunity – to engage in motivating activities – and talk about those activities using core.

  • Hi Carole,

    “How can I help them WANT to communicate?
    What can I do to make interacting seem like the best thing since sliced bread?
    What will it take for them to desire conversational exchanges?
    For these learners I’m wondering:
    What will make them feel successful?
    How can we get them to see that people are fun and worth the effort?”

    Good questions. I think we also have to add:

    “How can we make sure that interacting really IS a good thing for them, so that they have good reason to want to?

    Will it actually help them to desire conversational exchanges? If they still have to learn all the communication skills and no one in their environment wants to hear their communication, believes in them, and responds to them, will wanting just lead to more frustration and pain? Did they have a good reason for disconnecting in the first place and if so, how can we change that, and how can we keep them from getting hurt when they reconnect?

    How can we make sure that people in their lives actually *are* fun and worth the effort?

    How can we make sure students actually *are* successful?”

    These are questions about what really *happens* in students’ lives, and not just how they feel about it. (Mel Baggs/Ballastexistenz talks a lot about the difference between these things, in the context of nonviolent communication, I believe. I just spent the past few hours unsuccessfully looking for the post, but if I find it, will send you the link).

    Anyway, these extra questions would also acknowledge that students with complex communication needs really do experience a different social world than others do.

    You know that, of course, and are probably already asking these questions.
    I know you think a lot about how to make sure students have a social environment that supports them communicating. But maybe my sharing these questions will help someone reading who wouldn’t necessarily have thought about them.

    Love your blog,

  • Another group that isn’t necessarily served by core vocabulary are people who use AAC as augmentative rather than alternative communication. For example, I saw an intervention for people with semantic dementia that involved creating topic boards for topics the person wanted to discuss but couldn’t always remember the relevant vocabulary for. Core vocabulary is the last vocabulary lost in semantic dementia and was still completely intact in these patients, so a core vocabulary AAC system would have been redundant. Instead, they needed fringe.

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      That’s an interesting point, Ettina. I hadn’t really thought of that one. Thanks for sharing those thoughts.

  • Martha says:

    Bless you for your article. As a parent I am struggling. I have a 10 yr old multi disabled son with no language. I know he knows stuff and can communicate but getting there is killing me. Most recently the school has decided on the 8 core words, although some are in fact not core words, that they will teach him. Although the speech therapist appears to per her reports be having success during her 30minutes a week with 2 words the same is not reported throughout the remainder of his school day. Many years ago with my oldest we used a system with great success that utilized both nouns but also what I now know as core words for his older brother. A system that took into consideration where he was at the time and things he needed to be able to say. Thank you for giving me words to express my needs for my child. For empowering me to move forward in a way I know will help my son.

  • Genevieve says:

    Why not model a combination of core and fringe words during high interest activities with these students? They can feel successful using fringe but are exposed to the use of core words. I find that access to core words helps new language learners go beyond requesting and labeling.

  • Melissa Gardner says:

    This is a very needed article in our AAC world! Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.