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What is Core Vocabulary? - AAC Awareness Month

If you've been following my blog for awhile or spoken to me about AAC, chances are I've used the terms "core" and "fringe" vocabulary. Many of us are unfamiliar with these terms, unless you've been in the AAC world for a little while. Even fewer of us understand the power behind a core vocabulary approach until implemented in practice.

Core Vocabulary

Did you know that there's a list of approximate 350 words that make up 80% of what you say every day? I would actually argue you could possible lessen that number to 150-200, especially for our younger ones. Here's a list of the top 100 core words.

By focusing on core vocabulary first, we give our children the highest frequency words they will need in everyday situations. This gives them almost instant success in school, at home and anywhere they may use their speech generating device (SGD). When programming an SGD with core vocabulary, it is important to keep these buttons in a fixed location to allow muscle memory to increase efficiency. This means that our children aren't searching for the same word, as it's in the same spot every time.

Fringe Vocabulary

The rest of the 20% we say are considered "fringe" vocabulary. These words change from place to place, time to time, and person to person. These are often the words that add personalization and depth to our conversations. While these words are important, they do not give our children a flexible vocabulary that they can use wherever they go. Often times, I recommend programming fringe vocabulary in a category-style layout. It may be helpful to link fringe vocabulary to associated core vocabulary words, such as a "foods" category under or near the "eat" core vocabulary word.

Let's think about core versus fringe using the example of eat/food. All of us eat and need to be able to communicate when we are hungry. However, what foods we want to eat vary greatly. First, they will vary based on our likes and dislikes and/or allergies. If we have a peanut allergy, we probably do not want to ask for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (We may instead want a "quickfire" button that alerts others to our allergy!). Next, think about what foods you have available to you based on where you live or the culture you're in. Some areas eat sushi more frequently, where as children in other areas may not have any idea what sushi is! Other children live off nuggets and burgers, where as in other cultures, these foods are nowhere near as common. Also, what we eat in the morning for breakfast is often much different than what we eat in the evening. It's important to think about how frequently we will need to say each word when programming and learning to use an SGD. We want our children to have access, but we also do not want to overload them with unnecessary vocabulary options.

We can also communicate some fringe items by using core vocabulary to help get our needs met. Continuing our eat/food example, let's pretend it's dinner time. Your child wants eggs for dinner tonight! How could she communicate this with only core words?

She could use directing actions to tell you where the eggs are...

"Eat," and she pulls you to the fridge, "Open".

You open the fridge and ask, "What do you want to eat?" (ideally, you are pushing the underlined words on the SGD).

"Get this/out" and she points to the egg box; or "Yellow White" (to describe the egg); or "That down" to get the eggs down; or even "make that" to tell you to cook/make the eggs. This where flexible language is important as there are many ways she could tell you "I want eggs"!

She could use a combination of core and fringe words to put together "I want eggs", which is wonderful. However, by memorizing this request, she's limiting her flexible use of language. When we limit our fringe vocabulary until after we understand how to use our SGD, it allows our language thinkers to troubleshoot and figure out other ways to get their message across. The first 1-50 highest frequency words contain ZERO nouns! So why do we focus so much of our mental energy in *teaching* nouns? It's easier in the short term, that's very true. However, keeping the bigger picture in mind and trying to foster flexible problem solving, it's important to keep these facts in mind. We learn action and describing words first, because these are the tools that best meet our needs in all situations.

I highly recommend looking into the The Descriptive Teaching Model, developed by Gail Van Tatenhove for a great approach in how to teach core vocabulary first, with minimal fringe nouns. This approach fosters thinking skills and decreases the reliance on memorized responses.

For more information in teaching core vocabulary, I encourage you to check out the following links:

Let me know how you've applied core vocabulary into your child's language learning in the comments below!

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