Core and Fringe Vocabulary: What It Is & How to Use It

Level 1: Receptive Language

Fringe words are often easier to teach because you can picture the item in your mind; however, core words are going to be more flexible to use across environments and communication partners. Since we don’t just speak using fringe vocabulary, it is imperative that we focus on teaching the core words even though it can be more challenging.

Core Vocabulary

  • High frequency words that can be used in a variety of situations and with various communication partners
  • Make up about 75-80% of the words we use everyday
  • You cannot form a sentence without using core words
  • You can create a sentence using only core words
  • Often more difficult to visualize
  • Usually includes pronouns, helping verbs, prepositions, articles, and common verbs
  • Examples include – I, he/she, like, play, have, on, open, help, more, can, do, it
  • Sentences using only core vocabulary – “I like to play”, “I need help”, “you can do it”

Fringe Vocabulary

  • Words more specific to a situation – mostly nouns
  • Cannot be used across a variety of situations
  • Cannot form a sentence with only fridge words
  • Can visualize the fringe vocabulary words
  • Examples include “pig”, “school”, “teacher”, “pizza”, “TV”, “dinosaurs”

Why should I teach core vocabulary?

It is import to teach these core words because it allows the student to more readily communicate his/her wants/ needs which will decrease frustration. It is easier for the student to touch the icon or say “more” to request the desired item then learning each noun or trying to navigate a device through various categories to find that specific desired item. For example, if a student points/says “more” or “want it” I usually can understand the student within the given text which reduces those communication frustrations for the student. In this situation the student would not have to learn the new vocabulary term if he/she did not know it or would not have to navigate through a communication system to find what he/she wants.

What is AAC?

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) includes all forms of communication; (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. There are different types of AAC systems. There are unaided and aided systems. Unaided communication systems – rely on the person’s body to convey messages. Examples include gestures, body language, and/or sign language. Aided communication systems – require the use of tools or equipment in addition to the person’s body. Aided communication methods can range from paper and pencil to communication books or boards to devices that produce voice output (speech generating devices or SGD’s) and/or written output. Electronic communication aids allow the user to use picture symbols, letters, and/or words and phrases to create messages. (ASHA webstie)

How to teach core vocabulary when using AAC?

When using aided Augmentative and Alternative Communication systems (AAC); core vocabulary should be the main focus because it allows for more flexibility. It is important to have the most frequently used vocabulary or core words easily accessible so it can be utilized efficiently. Most AAC systems now include core vocabulary as the main component and fringe vocabulary as a side component of the communication system. Fringe vocabulary are not used as often so they can be placed to the side or top of core boards and programmed deeper into the AAC device. Another benefit of having the core words easily accessible and in the same place on the communication system is it allows the students to learn the motor planning patterns on the system which allows the student to also communicate quicker.

Here are some samples of Core Vocabulary Boards.


There are several different AAC devices that use core vocabulary. Here are examples of some AAC devices but it is important to gather more research and information when looking for a communication system to meet the needs of your student. You can use the company’s website to gather more information on a specific device and how the vocabulary is arranged on the device.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 8.57.54 AM

How can I teach core vocabulary?

  • Post a core board in the room. You can use the core board during small group instruction or throughout the day to help teach those core words and concepts.IMG_2132
  • Post core words around your room instead of just the noun.
    • Post “open” and “close” and touch those words on the door as you do the action. It is rare that we just say the word “door” as we open/close the door but we often do say “open”, “open it”, “close”, or “close it”.
    • Post “drink” on the water fountain and touch the icon “drink” before the student takes a drink.
  • Book Activity –Touch different core words on the core vocabulary board or AAC device as you read a book.
    • Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See. Touch the words “WHAT DO YOU SEE” on the core board or AAC device for each page as you read the words.
  • Craft Activity – Touch different core words on the core vocabulary board or AAC device as you complete a craft.
    • Heart Craft – Glue different pieces of red, pink, and white construction paper on a large cut out heart. Core words you could use during the craft include “more on”, “need more”, I want it”, “want more”, “help”, etc.
  • Cause/Effect Toys – Touch different core words on the core vocabulary board or AAC device as you engage in structured play activities
    • Wind up cars. Use the core words “go”, “stop”, “more go”, “I want go”, and “help” during the activity.
    • Fisher Price Piggy Bank – Use the core words “my turn”, “in”, “more in”, “out”, “take out”, “help”, etc.


Teaching core vocabulary words is very important because it allows for flexibility across settings and communication partners. It provides the student the opportunity to communicate for a variety of functions and does not limit him/her to specific topics.

Sarah The Speech Helper


  1. I found this very interesting. I have never been quite sure what the “core” vocabulary is. This makes sense to me, but I am still a little confused as I teach a different population. I teach students with multiple disabilities, who are primarily non-verbal. Two of these students have very limited independent movement, and have no established communication systems. One student can use a switch for cause-effect activities, and has begun using facial expressions such as smiling to indicate a choice, but the other student is not even at the cause-effect level yet. My third student has maybe 3-5 modified signs, and a couple of words that she can say in Spanish, which are recognizable to very familiar communication partners. This student is legally blind, and I’m not sure pictures have meaning to her as I’m not sure what she can see. The other “issue” with all of my students is that they come from Spanish speaking homes, so even my non-verbal students are only hearing Spanish at home. Therefore I’m never sure if I should be introducing vocabulary words in English or Spanish, as I am pretty sure they will not hear these words in English from anyone other than those or us in school.

    I did realized that my one student who can gesture has begun pointing to herself sometimes when we are “communicating,” and I realized this may be like the “core vocabulary” for “I”. It was interesting to think about.

    I would love any thoughts anyone has on working with vocabulary with students who are non verbal with limited independent movement. I am also looking for input from anyone who is working with non-verbal students who are from Spanish speaking homes.


  2. How can I find a core board?

  3. I have some difficulty with the concept of core words too. As I understand it, they are the most common words a person would use. This, of course, means that an exact core word list would vary some (but not too much) from person to person. However, It seems that the core of words that are used with high frequency fall into two very basic categories: easy to understand words (frequently used words that can be pictured or demonstrated) and hard to understand words (frequently used words that cannot be pictured or demonstrated, abstract concept words, and words that have changing meanings–words such as you/me, this/that and so on). (In addition, there is a handful of core words that falls between the two categories.) I’m referring to these words as being easy or difficult to learn for those with language disabilities caused by something like autism rather than easy/hard for normally developing toddlers who are “wired for language” to learn. What I find difficult about the whole concept is that most things I’ve seen on the subject of core words doesn’t address this basic split in the list of core words and treats the words the same. Teaching core words on easy side of the list is totally different from teaching core words from the difficult side. And there are other divisions that can be made in the core list; for instance, prepositions are often taught as their own category. I wish I ran across more on the subject of teaching core that had recommendations for teaching different kinds of core words or categories of core words. As an example from above, open/close/drink/go/stop/in/out/on are overall pretty easy words, and, while words like want/more/help aren’t obviously easy, but they don’t seem to be so hard to pick up just the same; and my/turn/what/do/you/need/take are words that are not so easy. Of course, it isn’t as simplistic as dividing the list into easy and hard, but, within the list of core words, there are words that might be learned at a very young age and other words that are so difficult that they may never be learned. While it does, of course, make sense to make frequently used words easily accessible on an aac device, it makes less sense to speak of teaching core words. Somehow, lumping all of these words together into a category called core seems a bit absurd. The concept of teaching core words is such a broad idea that I’m not sure it even makes sense to use the term “teaching core words.” It isn’t specific enough to mean much of anything when it comes to teaching one how to teach these words.

  4. Great points! There are core boards in Spanish but I understand your conundrum of teaching English or teaching Spanish. With my bilingual students we tend to focus on English in school since that will give them additional functional skills in the future. But when needed or for students who really struggle – we add in Spanish. For students who have vision challenges, I would recommend use objects and some basic signs. Along with that – within sign language you can focus on more core concepts such as “more” or “help” versus teaching signs for specific items. Hope this helps 🙂

  5. Yes it is difficult to teach core vocabulary words because they are more abstract and some of the words can take on various meanings. Some core words may be easier to teach and for students to understand than others. The move to teach more core words is because we don’t just talk in nouns. While it is hard to teach core words they will be used far more than nouns. I think having people begin to have a better understanding of what core words are will start to increase strategies and ways to teach these words to our students. This concept is something we will continue to work on and provide resources for as we continue to develop strategies using core words. Sarah – The Speech Helper

  6. Sarah, I don’t see much online for products. I thought about making my own but it seems a bit complex. I also looked at the site that was suggested in the above comments but couldn’t find anything too helpful besides pictures and examples. Do you know of any other resources or communication boards that can be purchased to teach core words?

  7. I am a school based SLP who has worked with students with severe to profound communication deficits for 13 years. We began a “core” initiative about 4 years ago in the district that I work in and as a result i have seen so much progress in functional communication skills. Even with students who are working at the choice making level with a field of 2 core pictures have been more active participants in classroom, therapy and specials activities. We have the Pixon Project Kit developed by Gail Van Tatenhove who is considered the Core “guru”. She has a lot of information available about Core vocabulary on the website as well as links to videos of her using it in action. Not only have we seen an increase in functional communication skills, but we have become extremely consistent with the types of picture symbols that we are using. The Pixon Core words are utilized in everything from daily sheets and classroom visual supports as well as curricular visual supports like for math, writing, etc. I am so passionate about Core vocabulary because it has greatly impacted my students understanding of language and function communication skills!

  8. Great information! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  9. I need help with fringe vocabulary. My speech path expects me to come up with a list weekly based off my lessons and I am struggling and not finding a lot of resources online.

  10. Your core and fringe vocabulary binder is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for. Is there anyway for me to download this or buy it? Thanks so much!

  11. I’m an ELA teacher and my Spanish-speaking students struggle a lot to communicate what they need support on. I think this learning material would be a perfect fit for my classroom. How can I obtain the binder, poster board, or loose sheets?

    • Hey! The binder is a standard 3-ring binder you can get at Walmart, Target, office supply stores, etc. I have core boards available for sale but they are not the exact ones in the blog post. Unfortunately, those were from Sarah’s district and I can’t sell them. The wall poster was also her districts. If you have Boardmaker, it is easy to make them yourself!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *