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Let’s take a look at the difference between core and fringe vocabulary terms and how they impact AAC use.  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 also focus on teaching the core words even though it can be more challenging.  Just a quick review on the differences between core vocabulary and fringe vocabulary.

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”

I’m not saying we should never use picture exchange communication systems which focuses mostly on nouns or never use objects/pictures to represent nouns.  There are times we need to teach concrete words or it may be easier for some of students to understand concrete nouns for specific situations.  For example, there are students who benefit from visuals of highly preferred food and toy items to assist with initially learning how to request.  However, we also need to teach students different core vocabulary concepts.

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 what the student wants 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.  It is not always easy to teach students to use those core vocabulary words.

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.

Ideas for teaching core vocabulary when using AAC?

The more practice the better when teaching core vocabulary concepts.  Post a large core board in your room and use the core board during small group instruction or throughout the day to help teach and review those concepts.  I have a teacher who has a daily morning message with her students and incorporates the core board during that time.  For example, you can give all the students a smaller size picture of the core word “she”.  The students can come up and match their core vocabulary picture to the large core board icon.  Then you might point to the girls in the group and say “she” or have maybe 5-6 flashcards of different girls and say “she” as you show the students the picture and point to the word on the core board.  You can model a different core word each day/week.

Post Core Words – You can hang core words around your room instead of just nouns.  Post “open” and “close” on your door and/or window and touch those words on the door/window as you do the action. It is rare that we just say the word “door” or “window” as we open/close the door/window 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.  For example, while reading the book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See” you can touch the words “WHAT DO YOU SEE” or even just the word “WHAT” or “SEE” on the core board/AAC device for each page as you read the book.  Maybe your student can push the word/icon after you or with you as you are reading.

I also use some of the different adapted books I have created when working on teaching those core vocabulary concepts.  Many of those books are also repetitive in nature.  If you are reading an adapted book about prepositions you can touch those different prepositional concepts on the board/device as you read the book.

Craft Activity – I can usually adapted most craft activities to target some of those different core words as my students complete the craft.  For example, glue different pieces of red, pink, purple, and white construction paper on a large cut out heart. Core words you could use during the craft include “on” “more on”, “need more”, I want it”, “want more”, “help”, etc.

Simple Games –You can sabotage the game a bit to make the student need to communicate to participate in the game.  For example, when playing the game “Barnyard Bingo” with my students I hold my hand over the part where the student opens the door to get the animal coin out of the barn.  The student has to touch “open” or “more” on their core board/AAC device before I move my hand and the student can open the door.  You can also touch “yes” if the coin color matches the color of their board or “no” if the coin doesn’t match and the student has to put the animal coin back in the barn.  You can always work on your student using “my turn” to indicate his/her turn in the game.  There are a variety of these types of simple games you can play with your students.

Another game I use is Lucky Ducks and the student has to push “stop” or “go” to push the button in the middle to make the ducks go around the pond.  Use could also use the core words “my turn”, “more”, or “again” during this game.

Cause/Effect Toys – Touch different core words on the core vocabulary board or AAC device as you engage in structured play activities

  • See & Say – Use core words “my turn”, “go”, “more”, and “like” during the activity
  • 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.

Try to think of a few core words you can focus on during a specific structured task/activity.  When I first started working on this concept sometime I even had to write down the core words I was going to focus on for that specific activity to help me figure out what and how to target those core vocabulary concepts.  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.

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