Let’s Talk Vocabulary. How Much do You Really Need?

In the AAC world these days there is a lot of talk about core words.  Practice has been catching up with research, and teaching AAC users high frequency core words with which to build their own unique phrases and sentences has become more common.

Last year, Carole Zangari wrote a post on the PrAACtical AAC blog about not throwing out the baby with the bath water.  In our rush to teach core words, we have created situations for many of our AAC users where they don’t have the fringe vocabulary that is important to them on their AAC systems. And while many of our students are working with the Universal Core 36 or 40 words, that is not nearly sufficient vocabulary to meet communication needs long-term.

Many of us have interests that are unique to us or favorite topics we like to talk about, or hobbies or other experiences.  And we have the words with which to discuss or explain or narrate them.  Many of our students similarly have specific items or topics that are important to them. And of course within the classroom and home environments we are - or should be - reading books to them on a variety of interesting fiction and nonfiction topics.  So where do those words come in? How do we get them in the AAC system, and provide sufficient repeated practice with them so that the students understand and can use them?

In Special Education and Speech-Language intervention we have long understood that by keeping various curricular content in thematic units so that English and Math and Science and Social Studies are all addressing related content with similar vocabulary we provide students with a much better foundation for vocabulary building. 
General Education classes also work with thematic units; particularly in the lower grades, for the very same reasons.

Unfortunately, those same Special Education classes have ventured away from themed vocabulary instruction as they stick to the “Centers” approach to working on IEP goals.  I have seen many of these classrooms moving students from Center to Center every 20-30 minutes with no connection between the cutting task at the fine motor center and the story sequencing task at the ELA center or the handwashing task at the ADL center.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I am a huge believer of using trade books (story books) to teach language skills, as well as literacy.  By using both fiction and nonfiction texts on a theme, we can provide a more cohesive plan for providing our AAC users with vocabulary around experiences that they may be missing, or just not getting enough of.

What are some favorite themes and books to go with them?
In the Fall, we often talk about pumpkins around Halloween time.  But pumpkins can provide a myriad of language experiences beyond carving faces.  Pumpkin life cycles, pumpkin shapes, pumpkin pie making.  Try these books: It’s Pumpkin Time, From Seed to Pumpkin, The Very Best Pumpkin, P is For Pumpkin, and Oh, My, Pumpkin Pie.

Planning a food themed unit? Try these books about vegetables: the little pea, Rah, Rah, Radishes, The Giant Carrot, and Sylvia’s Spinach.

There has been an explosion of children’s literature in the past couple of decades, and books abound on every topic possible.  Create fun thematic units around topics that are important not just for all students, but for each of your students individually.

To get you started, you might want to try this resource for the end of the school year or during extended school year (aka summer school); “Summer Beach Fun with Core.”  The materials in this resource focus on core words appropriate for Summer activities, with some fun fringe words on top.

Have fun with it, and.... keep on talking!


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