This is the first post in a six part series about building vocabulary to support increasingly complex language tasks both receptively and expressively. Many of our students are nonverbal or limited-verbal communicators. For some, picture exchange is a useful and functional communication modality…until it isn’t. Using pictures, many students become experts at requesting and labeling. Some begin to use sentence starters to combine words such as, “I want”, “I see”, and “I hear”; however, these single pictures or symbol combinations only get the student so far. Requesting and labeling items/actions is an important skill, but so are comprehending and using negation and verbs, describing, and comparing/contrasting. These additional skills support the development of other critical communicative functions including commenting and protesting. But- it can be so difficult to help a student build a vocabulary and conceptual awareness that helps to move them beyond requesting and labeling. So, where do we start?
Features- This is where I like to start. Many students are already familiar with a few features (e.g. wings, tail). Students also seem to enjoy learning and using feature words because they often get to talk about motivating topics including animals, food, or vehicles. The “feature deck” from these Feature and Function Task Cards are one of my favorite materials to use. They are called Level 2 because they include features that are very different on different items (e.g. trunk of car/tree/elephant, tail of airplane/kite/animal). Each card has the student find the picture with a specific feature from a field of four. I begin by showing the student a card and giving the verbal command as written. When students are inaccurate or tell me, “What’s a paw?”, I pair the command with a picture of the feature. If the student is still incorrect with the visual prompt, I point to the correct answer and model, “The dog has paws”. I typically work on identifying object features for one quarter/IEP benchmark.
Function- I like to target function words next. Identifying the function of an item helps to build the student’s verb vocabulary, which is often significantly less robust than their noun vocabulary. I teach verb function exactly the same way as object features. The “function deck” from the above mentioned Feature and Function Level 2 cards is my favorite tool to use because each verb is targeted in multiple ways. This strategy helps to generalize understanding of the verb. These Feature and Function Task Cards have has slightly less complex vocabulary and are also a great tool to use. I typically work on identifying object function for one quarter/IEP benchmark.
Category- Category knowledge is typically the last concept I work on within this set of skills. My favorite tool to teach categories is this set of Receptive Category Task Cards. Some categories are more common and familiar (e.g. food, animals) but there are many that are less familiar (e.g. hygiene items, appliances). For some students, they need to start with common categories and build up to less common categories. Just like feature and function, I teach categories by presenting the task card by itself and adding a visual if the student needs a prompt. Category knowledge is both an important academic skill and life skill. We organize our world in categories (e.g. store aisles, kitchen cabinets, menus). Teaching categories in this concrete way can help with more abstract understanding of categories later. Typically, I target receptively identifying items within a given category for one quarter/IEP benchmark. For the last quarter/IEP benchmark, I target feature, function, and category together.
Teaching feature, function, and category vocabulary is one of my most favorite goals and concepts. It is often the first goal I target when planning a student’s transition from a low-tech (e.g. core language board, picture exchange) to a high-tech augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system. These skills are particularly important as a more robust verb vocabulary and category knowledge (many devices are navigated by category) often make that transition more successful. Stay tuned for the next post in this series to learn about taking feature, function, and category skills “up a notch” with higher level tasks.
In the meantime, here are additional materials to help work on these skills: