Teaching with Core Words: Building Blocks for Communication and Curriculum

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Since the first published AAC boards were created in the 1920s, AAC systems have used core words to allow non-speaking people to communicate.

Core words are those 50 to 400 words that make up most of what we say in typical conversation and writing. Many studies across different languages and age groups have found that about 50 words account for 40 to 50% of what we say, 100 words account for about 60%, and 200 to 400 words account for 80% of the words we use every day.

If we give AAC learners quick access to these core words, we’re providing them with a powerful tool to communicate whatever they want to say. Rather than relying on preprogrammed sentences or phrases such as “I want” and “I see”, they can choose from a relatively small set of words to create their own sentences, express a wider variety of ideas, and work on more advanced grammar.

One necessary part will be missing from these sentences, though – nouns. While languages usually vary in what percent of their core words are pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions, one finding is very consistent – nouns are rarely core words. According to one study of English (Dynamic Learning Maps™ Core Vocabulary, Center for Literacy and Disability Studies):

Core Word List Position% of nouns
1 - 500%
51 - 1001%
101 - 2009%
201 - 30012%
3-1 - 4002-%

Nouns are usually considered fringe words. These are the highly specific words like “giraffe”, “leaping”, “bored”, and “Julia” that are needed to communicate very specific messages. Having access to fringe words is essential for clear and specific communication, but each individual fringe word is not used that often. While it may be very useful to be able to say “velociraptor”, it doesn’t usually come up in daily conversation. Even more common fringe words like “apple” are highly personal. Some people may need quick access to “apple” while others prefer different fruits.

There are several core-word based vocabularies available in apps (such as Proloquo2Go) or dedicated AAC devices. In theory, these vocabularies should give an AAC learner 80% of the words he needs to communicate without any additional programming. Yet much of the limited time that SLTs, special educators, and parents have to support AAC use is typically spent programming and teaching pages of fringe words for specific lessons and activities. The AAC learner would likely benefit more from learning how to find and combine core words to express personal thoughts and preferences.

Why are core words often not provided or taught to AAC learners? One of the major barriers to using core words is that they can be hard to teach. Unlike nouns, most core words are not “picturable”. We can use symbols or photos of most nouns to teach the meaning of the words and represent that meaning on an AAC system. But how do we teach and represent “is”, one of the most frequently used words in English?

Techniques for teaching core words have increasingly been the focus of research and clinical presentations over the last few years. The purpose of this article is to share some of these techniques and resources with a wider audience.


Typically developing children learn language by hearing it spoken around them all day in real-life conversations for years before they develop the ability to put together sentences. Yet often we hand a non-speaking child a communication device and expect him to use it effectively after a short demonstration.

All AAC learners need to see what it looks like to communicate using their AAC systems in real conversations. This simple idea goes by many names – Aided Language Stimulation, Aided Language Input, Natural Aided Language to cite a few. The idea is to use the AAC learner’s system, or another similar AAC system, when you talk with the AAC learner.

You don’t need to model every single word you say, especially to start with. This would likely be overwhelming to all concerned. Instead, model one step above the AAC learner’s current skill level. So if the AAC learner is not yet using the communication device to communicate in single words, model at the single word level. For example, if you’re leaving the classroom to go to the cafeteria, you can verbally say “It’s time to go to the cafeteria” and press the “go” button on the AAC system when you say the word “go”. Once the AAC learner is at the one word level, you can step up your game – add a word when you model. So if you’re leaving the house to go to see grandmother, you can verbally say “Let’s go see Granny” and press “go” and “Granny” while you’re speaking these words. For more tips on modeling in specific situations, see Van Tatenhove (2013).

Words of the Week

One way of structuring the process of teaching and modeling core words is to schedule a set of words to focus on each week or month. This makes the modeling more manageable, and as long as you keep modeling words from previous weeks, you will end up teaching a robust balanced vocabulary with many core words.

A wonderful program for teaching core words using this method has been developed by Carole Zangari, Gloria Soto, and Lori Wise. The program is called TELL-ME (Teaching Early Language and Literacy through Multimodal Expression). This 30-week preschool program teaches three to six core words every two weeks. A different picture book is used for each two-week period, and the words of the week are used throughout the day in various activities:

  • Daily reading of the book of the week for different purposes, with emphasis on the words of the week (saying the words of the week using AAC when they occur in the story reading, creating a poster about a character in the story, acting out the story, picking a favorite character or event).
  • Predictable chart writing (each student uses their system to complete a sentence that starts with core words such as “I can”, “I like to”, “We saw”. The sentences can be combined with photos to create a book the students can re-read at school and at home).
  • Using words of the week during other school activities (snack, cooking, art, music, creative play centers).
  • Modeling words of the week whenever possible using large core word displays located throughout the classroom as well as on students’ communication devices.
  • Sending home information to families about the words currently being learned and how to model them using the students’ communication devices.

These strategies teach core words in natural contexts. Through repeated modeling of the words to communicate during real, fun activities, students learn the meaning of non-picturable words and how to use them to communicate. For more details, see the handouts from Carole Zangari’s ISAAC 2012 preconference presentation in the references. Similar approaches are described in Hatch, Geist, & Erickson (2015) and Erwin, Maglinte, & Lovell (2014).

Descriptive Teaching Method

So you’ve been modeling core words during real conversations and using words of the week strategies! Your AAC learners are starting to use core words on their own! But you’re still getting requests to spend your instructional, therapy, or home time programming nouns for academic lessons – nouns you know your AAC learners will not use once the lesson is over. What can you do to make sure your efforts are focused on developing useful communication skills?

The Descriptive Teaching Model, developed by Gail Van Tatenhove, may be the answer. In this model, instead of asking the student to memorize specific nouns to answer academic questions, the student uses core words to describe the concepts in the lesson. For example, in a lesson about the life cycle of the butterfly, the teacher may ask the student about the chrysalis stage. The teacher could ask a closed question with one right answer, such as “What is the name of the third stage of a butterfly’s life?” To answer this question, the student has to have chrysalis programmed into his system, or at least have a low-tech choice board with the stages represented.

Using the descriptive teaching model, the teacher could instead ask “What happens during the chrysalis stage?” The student could answer using core words: “It sleeps inside.” “It changes to a new thing.” “It turns pretty.” Each of these sentences shows the student understands this stage of the life cycle.

There are several bonuses to the descriptive teaching method:

  • It gives the student more practice retrieving core words and combining them into meaningful sentences
  • It requires the student to think more deeply and creatively about a concept in order to describe it his own words
  • It saves time spent programming and learning how to retrieve infrequently used words

Teaching Communication for Life

In the end, most parents, teachers, and therapists have the same goal for the AAC learners they help – to give them the ability to communicate their thoughts clearly to anyone they need to talk to.

We know that core words will give AAC learners access to about 80% of the words they will need. The remaining 20% are picturable and easy to learn. Why not spend most of our time teaching the 80% of words that are needed most frequently but are harder to learn? Why not teach how to combine these words to form sentences we never anticipated they would want to say? When we do this, we are not just enabling AAC learners to demonstrate knowledge of academics – we are teaching them how to communicate effectively for the rest of their lives.

Screen Shot 2018 03 19 At 09 20 40
The Language Stealers, Michael Brian Reed, 2010.

This article was previously published in the Communication Matters Journal, Vol. 29(1), April 2015. The journal offers a multidisciplinary perspective of AAC, and is published three times a year in the UK. More information