Core words are an essential part of any balanced AAC system.
What are these core words? Why should we use them? And most importantly, what are some practical tools and strategies that can help us implement a core word approach?
What are core words?
While spoken language has at least 250,000 words, a list of only 200 words accounts for about 80% of the words you use every day! These words are called “core words”.
Core words are usually verbs (“go”, “come”), adjectives (“good”, “little”), prepositions (“to”, “on”), pronouns (“you”, “that”), articles (“the”, “a”), and conjunctions (“and”, “but”). Only about 10% of the first 200 core words are nouns, and these nouns are very general (“girl”, “house”) rather than specific (“porcupine”, “celery”).
If we give Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) learners quick access to these core words, we’re providing them with a powerful and flexible 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 ideas, and work on grammar. Rather than only making choices from photos of objects, they can learn to communicate for a wide variety of reasons. Rather than learning new curriculum words for each new lesson, they can build their language skills by using a consistent set of flexible words to answer questions about curriculum topics.
Don’t forget fringe words and the alphabet!
Core words are essential, it does not mean that we do not provide other important vocabulary. Core words should be within an AAC system alongside “fringe” words.
Fringe words are very specific words that have a more narrow meaning than core words. They have a different kind of power - the power to precisely describe something in as few words as possible. Fringe words are usually nouns, but more specific verbs (“leap”, “dice”) and adjectives (“elegant”, “delicious”) are fringe words as well. Each individual fringe word is not used as often as a core word, so AAC systems are usually arranged with the core words on the first, or “home” page, and fringe words are located in other folders.
The average English speaker uses about 20,000 words regularly. Since about 200 of these are core words, this means we use about 19,800 fringe words. But all fringe words are not equally important for every person. Everyone has certain subjects that they really love to talk about the favorite people, places, and things in our lives. These words are different for each person, and one of the most important parts of setting up a vocabulary for someone is to make sure these words are available and easily reachable in the fringe folders.
In addition, all AAC systems should have access to a keyboard, allowing an AAC user the ability to start scribbling/writing with a keyboard within their AAC as soon as possible.
Core words, with easy access to fringe words and a keyboard, make up a balanced AAC system, which can allow for powerful and independent communication for AAC learners.
What are the challenges to teaching core words?
For many years we have taught AAC users to make choices or name objects, so as an AAC community teaching the “fringe” words seems to come easily.
However, how do we teach core words? Core words are more abstract, and less “picturable”; many core words have multiple meanings. Often, when we create a core word display, we have so many little core words on the page, people may seem overwhelmed with all the words. Choosing a place to start teaching core words can be complicated.
The answer actually turns out to be simple - we teach core words by using them on the AAC system while we talk.
Modeling core words
Core words can be taught in the same way as any words on the AAC system. We model core words as often as we can in everyday situations. When modeling, we point to core words on our AAC system as we talk with AAC users.
Once we realize the value of modeling to teach core words, we are likely to still have questions. Which words should we model? What kind of word combinations should we model?
Here are a few approaches to help you begin to answer these questions.
Choosing core words: Communication Functions
Choosing words based on different communication functions can be an effective place to start.
One of the key factors that can limit our students’ communication development is restricting our modeling to requesting and choice making. These are relatively easy to teach, and give a lot of initial “bang for your buck”. However, there is so much more to full communication! What if all we could do was request? How much would we have inside that we couldn’t express? How interested would other people be in talking with us?
Instead, let’s look at different communication functions! If we consider all the different reasons we communicate, we will find many core words that will help an AAC user build language for communication.
Here are a few basic examples of using core words within some different communication functions.