How Many Ways are Words Related?

I often find myself explaining to teachers, SLPs, and parents who are beginning to implement AAC with their student or child how sadly ironic it is that the students who have the hardest time learning to use language are the individuals who have to do the most thinking about how to use language - their “meta” skills - in order to say anything.

categorize b y descriptors
Categorize by Descriptor

When we speak, we rarely - if ever - think abut how to access the words we want to use.  I spend a lot of time talking about - and to - my cats.  I don’t have to think about where to find the word cat; the trip into categories -> animals ->  pets -> is beneath the level of consciousness.

But for individuals who use AAC - especially those with complex and significant language needs - that is exactly the conscious path they need to learn to take.  If they want an apple, they need to think about how to navigate to categories -> to food -> to fruit -> to apple.

While our implementation of AAC is highly contextualized, we can, and should, also spend time teaching specific language skills to make the task of communicating more fluid.  One of the ways we have addressed the skills needed is to teach categorization skills at many levels.

We teach students that cats are animals, that they are more specifically pets, that animals are nouns, or things.  We also need to teach that they belong to the categories of furry things and soft things and living things.

An activity I use with many of my students - even with those students who are verbal but need help with their categorizing of vocabulary skills builds groups by attributes.  This helps to promote flexibility when thinking about words.  A cat is a member of the animals group, of the subcategory of animals that are pets, but also the category of furry things, of things with 4 legs, and - in most cases - the group of lazy things.

I’ve created a variety of activities for categorizing over the years.  Small fancy erasers come in a wide variety of objects, as do refrigerator magnets.  Try the dollar store for tubes or bags of small plastic animals, household objects, play foods, and more.

And, if you are moving from objects to decontextualized practice, here is a paper activity that kids seem to enjoy.  

Everyone gets a flower center, and then chooses petals one at a time from a pile in the center that is turned face down.

If the petal you chose doesn’t belong to your category, put it back in the pile. Then the next student takes a turn.  

An alternative play is to have students keep petals they’ve picked in order to trade with others later.

Have fun, and……keep on talking!


  1. Great ideas for help with words and language. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love the hands-on representation of the flower for categorizing. Thank you for this post. I appreciate your knowledge and experience.

  3. Thank you, Marcy. And thanks for reading!