Hold That Core: When Do You NOT Use a Core Vocabulary Approach?
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 Nothing good would come of it, so Skyler spent most days withdrawn and shut down.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.
This post was written by Carole Zangari