Designing a comprehensive and inclusive vocabulary for Proloquo

  • 7 minute read

AssistiveWare Proloquo® has a large pre-programmed vocabulary. In this blogpost, we explain the principles that guided how the fringe vocabulary was selected and organized. As part of the “Proloquo explained” blog series, it is written for anyone who wants an in-depth explanation of the design of the new Proloquo AAC app.

(Updated February 14, 2024)

Guiding principles

The process of how we selected and organized the fringe vocabulary was guided by several principles:

  • AAC needs to be comprehensive. The base vocabulary should be sufficient to participate at home, school, work, and in a user’s community.
  • AAC should grow with the user. The base vocabulary should easily expand along with the user’s skill and knowledge.
  • AAC should be inclusive. The base vocabulary should reflect the diversity of our society.
  • AAC should be individual. The base vocabulary should be easily grown with the words that are personally important to the user.
  • Symbol-based AAC is not only for children. The base vocabulary should be relevant to all ages.

AAC needs to be comprehensive

Symbol-based AAC users rely on others to decide which words they have access to. Symbol-based AAC therefore has a responsibility to be comprehensive. Proloquo’s Crescendo Evolution™ was designed with this in mind.

First, we studied anonymous word usage data from tens of thousands of AAC users. We combined word usage from symbol-based AAC users (Proloquo2Go) with those of text-based AAC users (Proloquo4Text). We were not surprised that both groups of AAC users talked about all the common topics, from animals to vehicles, sports to games. But we were particularly interested in the words used by AAC users who can spell any word they want. We identified hundreds of words used by adult users that symbol-based AAC users need access to as well.

Next, we studied vocabulary research to identify additional words that are needed to participate in the school curriculum from early childhood to late elementary. This research helped us identify important concept words that we might have otherwise missed. For example, we already knew from user data that we needed to include the names of holidays. We relied on user data to determine which holidays were most frequently discussed and would go on the first page (Christmas, Halloween) versus the second page of that subfolder. Vocabulary research helped us identify the words that allow users to expand from talking about a thing (like Halloween) to the bigger concept (holiday) and key descriptors (celebration or memorial).

In addition to these common folders, there are also fringe folders for topics such as Work, Media & technology, and Government. Each fringe folder in Proloquo combines the most common words for that topic along with the important concepts that let us talk about it. For example, the Work folder includes jobs and workplaces, plus words like manage and schedule. The Buy & Sell folder combines words like store and shop with the things we associate with shopping, spending, and saving.

Designing a comprehensive and inclusive vocabulary for Proloquo Screenshot 1
The overview of all Fringe folders in AssistiveWare Proloquo

AAC should grow with the user

Children who use AAC grow up. Their AAC should grow with them. Some folders may appear irrelevant to certain users. After all, how many small children are having conversations about Media & Technology? However, even young children know something about it if they operate an iPad, watch TV, or Skype with their grandparents. It might seem easier to add iPad to the folder Toys or create a TV folder. However, we placed popular words (like iPad) in the general Media & technology folder. Twenty years from now, the child using an iPad today will be an adult using technology we probably haven’t even invented yet. But the concept of a technology folder will grow with them. Similarly, most children don’t think about Genre when they select a movie. But the concept of genre is an important way we organize media libraries. Users can ignore symbols for words that seem too abstract or advanced. But those words are included to ensure that Proloquo users have AAC that grows with them, and that teaches them categorical thinking.

Proloquo does not presume that any common word is irrelevant to a user because of their age. But we separated topics that might be personalized in very different ways, such as toys and games. A child’s Toys folder likely includes many games, but an adult gamer will not want children’s toys in their Games folder. We identified words about toys and games that are common across age groups, but we leave it to the individual user to decide how to personalize each one.

AAC should be inclusive

AAC users belong to many cultures and communities. AAC design should be inclusive. Proloquo does not presume users belong to any particular cultural tradition. This is evident in folders like Food, where foods are separated into conventional food groups rather than labeled as breakfast or dinner. Food groups like proteins versus vegetables are universal and scientific. Data collected from tens of thousands of AAC users helped us identify the most common food words to include in each folder. But what an individual user eats for breakfast is different based on where they live and their cultural traditions. Breakfast can be eggs and bacon, soup and rice, pastries or grains. Proloquo provides all the common food words, but users decide for themselves which foods to associate with different meals.

AAC users need to be able to explore and talk about the communities they belong to. One subfolder of People is Identity. This folder has words like nationality, disability, gender, and race. It includes terms for the most common religious affiliations, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Users can select from the most common personal identity terms and can add their own terms as well.

AAC should reflect individuality

AAC users have diverse interests and social roles. AAC should reflect their individuality. AAC users are children and parents, students and workers, neighbors and friends. The fringe folders are designed to make it easy to reflect the individual user. For example, the Work folder has words relevant to being an employee, a boss, or a volunteer. The Plans folder has words relevant to planning a meeting, a school project, or a protest march. Many fringe folders have empty placeholder subfolders, ready to be filled up with the user’s own friends, shows, shops, and artists.

We avoided adding specific words like trademarked characters, retail chains, restaurants, or varieties of snacks. Data from users suggested that preferences like this are too individual. Proper nouns were included only when they were of global, regional, or historical significance. These include major landforms like the Sahara, political leaders like George Washington, scientists like Marie Curie, or icons like Mahatma Gandhi. Users have lots of space to decide for themselves who and what to add to their vocabulary.

Designing a comprehensive and inclusive vocabulary for Proloquo Screenshot 2
Easy access to common words, spaces for user words, specific words and Related Words in AssistiveWare Proloquo

Symbol-based AAC is not only for children

People of any age can use symbol-based AAC. AAC design should not presume they are children. Many AAC users are introduced to AAC as children, but we designed Proloquo without the presumption that the user is a child. For example, everyone has things they might say about school regardless of whether they’re a student or not. The School folder has general words about school, like student, classroom, and teacher. Related Words include more sophisticated terms like pupil and laboratory. Whether a child is sharing a story about their school day or an adult is preparing to teach, the School folder includes the words they both might need.

History, government, science, and the arts are explicitly taught in school, but we talk outside of school about rights and responsibilities, politics and the climate, or music and theater. Therefore, subjects commonly taught in school stand alone in their own folders. We reviewed the general education curriculum for multiple countries to identify important academic vocabulary. For example, the Geography folder has all the continents and countries, along with academic words like local and global, or rural and urban. These folders are not exhaustive. Users and educators will personalize these folders with more detailed vocabulary as needed.

The fringe folders are organized based on scientifically accurate groupings. For example, whales, penguins, and sharks are in Mammals, Birds, and Fish, respectively, rather than grouped as sea animals. This structure supports children to explore, compare, and contrast to understand broad terms like mammal, bird, or fish. Part of teaching children to use AAC is teaching the concept of categories.


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