Core Vocabulary: Strategies for Teaching Core Words in AAC

 Core words are high-frequency words used repeatedly to generate our messages. They often have multiple meanings and can be used in different ways for various functions. And, best of all, they allow our AAC users to get to SNUG; spontaneous novel utterance generation. Being able to say whatever you want.

I often get asked how to plan lessons around core words. If they are words we use all the time, how hard can it be to incorporate them into class and intervention settings?

  •  Plan to Do Descriptive Teaching, Rather Than Referential
  • Observe What Is Happening Around You and the Student

  • Adapt Simple Stories for Core Words

3 tips for teaching core words

Descriptive Teaching:

Gail Van Tatenhove has extensively discussed the concept of descriptive teaching over the years. Typically, in referential teaching, we ask the student to respond to a question with a specific referent or word. For instance, “Which planet has 2 moons?” This question can only be answered with the name of a planet.

In contrast, if I ask the student to describe or tell me about Mars, he can use words like: “next to us,” “small,” “red,” and “cold.” These words are already available in a robust AAC system and do not need to be specifically programmed in, especially since Mars isn’t a typical topic of conversation. Moreover, this approach encourages the use of higher-order language skills, aligning with rigorous CCSS, to show what the student truly knows about Mars.

Classroom Observations:

Observing the classroom or other environments can reveal opportunities to interact using core vocabulary. For example:

  • “What is he doing?” can be asked about another student or staff member, with verbs for answering this question likely already in the system.
  • Other questions include: “How does she feel?” “How can you tell?” “What happened?” “Look at that! What do you think?”

If you are working on pronouns, you can ask, “Who is wearing a green t-shirt?” by observing the people around. 

For prepositions, questions like “Where is the pink notebook?” can be constructed using items in the environment.

Adapting Stories:

Adapting stories is my favorite way to teach core words. Trade books (children’s books from the store) offer rich vocabularies and diverse topics, characters, and settings. Stories act as a bridge from oral language to literacy.

I often start with books made at home or together in intervention, featuring pictures of the student in various locations or activities. Co-constructing and reading these together creates a “connection to me” that is significant for these kids. Begin with a single word or two per page: “I jump.” “I walk.” “I swing.” These simple core word phrases (or just using the verb) can significantly motivate students to engage with core word books.

Gradually, we expand these books from collections of words to more cohesive narratives. This is a multi-step process. Eventually, we move to simple stories and discuss them using core words (with some fringe words sprinkled in as needed).

Explore some of the stories on to help your students get ideas for their stories. Then, look at storybooks (trade books) to find core words. Rewrite the stories with your students to incorporate more core words. This can be a fun activity, as AAC users search their systems for the words they want to use.

So, there you have it: my top three ways to implement core vocabulary. I’ll be back next week with more ideas. In the meantime, keep on talking!

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