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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vocabulary Organization

Hi.  And welcome back as I continue to talk about AAC this month.  This is a huge topic, of course, and I’ll be coming back to it periodically throughout the year.  This month I’m just trying to talk about some of the basics.  So, today’s topic is vocabulary organization.
This is a topic that has been debated throughout the relatively short history of aac.  It may be the most hotly debated topic in ASHA, and has been the source of multiple guidelines and proposals.  I do think, however, that we may be closer some concensus.

So, here’s the basic debate.  Proponents of the use of core vocabulary in aac posit that much time is spent -wasted - providing unending lists of content based vocabulary (Baker, Hill, Devylder; 2000).  They prefer to use core words and broad meanings; particularly words with multiple meanings and high frequency of use.  And they focus on use of words only - no static phrases - to enable the user to combine words to construct genuine messages.  Static phrases do pop up in social chat pages and other high frequency places to enhance the speed of communicating in some contexts.  Core words are re-usable words.  Use of core words minimizes the “real estate” needed on a display page, and gives the student access to the most often used words to create their messages.

On the other hand, others ask, “Why limit vocabulary access?”  Does access only to core vocabulary limit students’ messages?  Should we focus instead on pragmatic intent and how to use language instead of word selection?  Shouldn’t we teach children to use a variety of functions and show them how to find the vocabulary they need for each of those, while providing them with a rich and varied vocabulary to use in all contexts?
Gayle Porter’s Pragmatic Organized Dynamic Display books use pragmatic branch starters to define message intent first and foremost, then teach how to find the words needed for the message based on the intent.  These books provide a rich and varied vocabulary to meet all needs and provides a built-in system of navigation conventions for dynamic display.

And then there are those who continue to use topic or category-based communication boards/pages, moving students to  core vocabulary as their fringe vocabulary grows.  As speech-language pathologists many of us think of words in terms of categories and functions.  Many communication systems have been built, historically, around basic categorization - words for things to eat, for things to play with, etc.  Unfortunately, few - if any - of these systems have provided a way to vary function and increase narrative or syntax.  These systems provide groups of words that are predominantly nouns.  There may be a page of verbs, or a couple of specific verbs for each noun group.  Some adjectives are provided usually - particularly colors, shapes, and feelings.  There is limited ability to construct genuine messages, build syntax skills, or move beyond requesting and some limited responding.

Just a brief note here about core vocabulary for those uninitiated.  Core vocabulary is that smallish set of words we use for most of what we say.  The average toddler uses only 25 words for more than 95% of what they say (Benajee et all 2003 ).  The average adult uses only 300-500 words for about 80% of what we say (outside of professional vocabulary).  Core words are identified through word frequency, reflecting the most commonly used words in a language.  These are composed of pronouns, prepositions, determiners, conjunctions, and verbs - but not nouns for the most part.  They are words that provide substance to a message and, in aac, are words that help provide information when a specific words is not available.

So, back to the debate.  You may be a proponent of one school or the other consistently throughout your practice.  Or, you may make a thoughtful decision each time you put together an aac system for a student, considering the individual needs and circumstances.  But what you always need to do is to organize the words the student is going to have and teach her how those words are related.  We may teach “go” and “ride” in the contexts of their use, and ow to use them in multiple contexts for different meanings, but we still need to teach that these words are about doing something, and that the doing something words are in (X) location in the system.

On a core word display the word “go” is among the first words taught, and available on the front page.  “Go” is taught in many contexts: get in the wheelchair and go someplace, go on the potty, get in the car and go somewhere, make it go by turning it on, go start an activity, go away and leave me alone.  In all cases, the focus is on that one word on the first page in that one location.

In a pragmatic display, the focus is on the type of message.  Yes, “Go” is right there on the pragmatic branches page.  But it leads to the places page to tell where you want to go, or where you went, or where you are going to go, or where you are going.  Using this “go” button takes us to options of where that somewhere is that you go.   To ‘go start an activity’ you would start with the ‘I want to do some activity’ message button, and then from there explain what wants to ‘go.’  You’d find “go away” on the first page of “quick words” because it is used a lot and needs quick access. In this sytsem, to say “Let’s go” you request to go.  To ask “Are we going” you’d start with a question intent.  To tell about going, you’d go to the telling about or telling a story button(s).  To ask to go play, you’d start with the activity button.   The emphasis here is on the intent of the message.  We teach the students how to indicate the type of message they want to deliver, as well as a consistent navigation system to control the content of the message.
Below are the 30-location Pixon board from Gail VanTatenhove and the 20 location PODD one page opening pragmatic branches page from Gayle Porter.

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