Activity-specific vs using balanced vocabulary

Use core words and fringe folders, rather than creating activity specific boards for everything.

We are starting communication with our AAC user. Even though we have started personalizing the vocabulary, we also need to think about some further considerations for the vocabulary. This relates to creating new folders for activities.

About activity-specific boards

For many years, activity-specific boards have been developed and used with AAC users.

Mealtime pictogram words
Activity-Specific Board for Mealtimes

An activity-specific board contains the specific vocabulary and words that may be needed for a particular activity. They are often printed out as a light-tech board and used in place of a full AAC system. They often include quick phrases, as well as single words. Teams may spend many many hours creating folders and folders of different activities.

Limitations of activity-specific boards.

There are a few limitations of using activity-specific boards with AAC users.

Activity-specific pictogram words for bowling
Activity-Specific Board for bowling

Firstly, on an activity-specific board, we can really only talk about those things that have been included on the board.  If we are going bowling,  we may be able to use this board successfully to talk about the game. However,  how can we have other interesting conversations on other topics? Will we only talk about bowling during our bowling trip? Activity-specific boards may limit language opportunities.

Activity-Specific Board for Horse Riding
Activity-Specific Board for Horse Riding

Next, often activity-specific boards are printed as light-tech boards. They are brought out during the activity and then put away again.  AAC users may learn how to say things on the board, but they are not learning where they can find these words in their AAC system. An AAC user may learn the word “horse” on their activity-specific horse riding board, but they cannot find “horse” in their AAC system to talk about their cousin’s horse. Activity-specific boards may limit learning of words in the AAC system.

Activity-specific boards, may or may not have included some core words. If core words were used, they may not have been placed on the boards in consistent locations from one board to the next. Different locations of words on boards can make it harder to develop a strong motor plan to find words quickly and easily.  Activity-specific boards may not support core word learning and motor planning.

Activity-specific board for Bubbles
Activity-specific board for Bubbles

Finally, because activity-specific boards give a person very specific words to use in a specific situation, they may not get the chance to see any of those words used in different places, for different activities. How can they then learn about the power and flexibility of language? For example, perhaps an AAC user has learnt to point to “blow” and “pop” on an activity-board for “bubbles”. What if they need to learn to use the word “blow” when they want to blow out the candles on the cake? Or they need to use the word “pop” to describe the sound the balloon made? Activity-specific boards may stop language generalizing from one situation to another.

Using your balanced vocabulary

An AAC system has a balanced vocabulary when it is based on core words, with quick access to fringe vocabulary and the alphabet.

Consider how we can use this balanced vocabulary, rather than activity-specific boards. 

We can focus on teaching and modeling core and fringe words in the AAC system, during any activity! We show where words can be found and how to combine them with powerful core words to communicate real messages in any situation.

We do this, rather than creating specific folders or pages for all the different activities we might do.

By using a balanced vocabulary, AAC users have far more words at their fingertips! More words gives them more opportunities to build language. 

By using a balanced vocabulary, AAC users can learn where words are, so they can use them later.  It often makes more sense to add extra words to existing folders rather than creating an activity-specific folder. Again this gives the AAC user a chance to learn where the words are so they can find them easily to use at another time.  

By using a balanced vocabulary, AAC users will always have core words. And depending on the system, these core words will stay in consistent locations to support motor planning for communication. Further, AAC users can learn how they can combine these core words to say many different things, giving them powerful and flexible communication.

Activity-specific boards - the right way!

There are times and places where activity-specific boards can be very useful. There are many AAC users who may get their first start at communication using an activity-specific board, before they have their own AAC system.

When you decide to make an activity-specific board, you may wish to consider a few of these ideas:

Activity-specific board for swimming
Activity-specific board for swimming, created using Crescendo template.

Useful times to use activity-specific boards:

Here are some example situations when activity-specific boards might be useful.

  • Sometimes when AAC users are first starting their AAC journey, a few activity-specific boards for favorite activities can really kick start communication. As long as they are introduced alongside the AAC system, and do not become the only tool being used, they are fine.
  • A printed light-tech activity-specific board may be useful in situations where taking the AAC system is not ideal, e.g. to the beach or the pool or other outdoor activities, or during messy activities like art or pottery.
  • Activity-specific boards are very useful when AAC users are going into new situations. We want them to communicate their messages quickly and easily. This applies also to situations where they will be talking to unfamiliar people. For example, community outings, ordering food at a cafe, buying a train ticket, giving a speech at a meeting, etc.

Start using balanced vocabulary

Using your balanced vocabulary to develop and generalize language is powerful for AAC users. It is far more valuable to do this than creating activity-specific boards for everything - and it will save you lots of time too!

This article on using balanced vocabulary rather than activity-specific boards is just one in the Learn AAC series about “Starting Communication”.

Follow the links below for more strategies to get communication started:

Now that we have started communicating using AAC, next we can consider ways to start Building Language and Communication.

Links & References