Selecting the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) your learner needs is an essential step in the AAC journey. And we should start with the end in mind. Our goal is for them to learn to combine words into sentences to express thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Presuming competence means that ultimately, we hope for the user to be able to do more than use nouns to make requests. We also want them to learn literacy, so they have the freedom to say exactly what they want to.
To get there, we need to provide AAC users with a system whose vocabulary includes many words in every word category. We also need to provide access to the alphabet. These are the building blocks of language and communication. With exposure and opportunities to practice with these building blocks, AAC users can become independent and successful communicators.
In more technical terms, this means that you should choose a balanced or robust AAC system. There are 4 ideal components: it should allow for different communication functions, and include core words, with quick access to fringe vocabulary and the alphabet. We will look at how these are designed for the growth of language skills in a AAC user.
4 components of a balanced robust AAC system
1. Communication functions
There are many reasons to communicate. We call these communication functions. A solid balanced AAC system will allow for communicators to give messages for a wide variety of reasons. AAC tools should allow someone to give their opinion, ask for things, tell stories and jokes, ask questions, and share what they know.
2. Core words
The English language has at least 250,000 words. However, a list of around 200 words accounts for about 80% of the words we use every day! These words are called “core words.”
Core words include:
- verbs (“go”, “come”),
- adjectives (“good”, “little”),
- prepositions (“to”, “on”),
- pronouns (“you”, “that”),
- articles (“the” “a”), and
- conjunctions (“and,” “but”).
Core words are not usually nouns. Only a few of top 200 core words are nouns. These nouns are very general nouns (“girl”,“house”) rather than specific ones (“porcupine”, “celery”).
Providing AAC learners quick access to these core words gives a way to communicate whatever they want to say. They do not have to rely on preprogrammed sentences such as “I want” and “I see”. Instead, they can choose from a relatively small set of words to create their own sentences. They can combine words to communicate for a wide variety of reasons. They are not limited to choosing from photos of objects.
Core words are powerful, flexible and can be used in so many different ways.
3. Fringe and personal vocabulary
While using core words is important, it does not mean that we do not provide other essential vocabulary. An AAC system should include core words alongside “fringe” words.
Fringe words are very specific words with a more narrow meaning than core words. These can describe something in as few words as possible. Fringe words are usually nouns. More specific verbs (“leap”, “dice”) and adjectives (“elegant”, “delicious”) are fringe as well. Each individual fringe word may not be used as often as each core word. Fringe words are located in other folders/pages. There are many many fringe words.
But not all fringe words are equally important for every person. Each of us has certain subjects that we really love to talk about: the most important people, places, and things in our lives. These words are different for each person. One of the most important parts of setting up someone’s vocabulary is making sure their most important fringe words are available. We want to make sure these are easy to reach in the fringe folders, without too many navigation steps.
4. Access to the Alphabet
In addition, all AAC systems should provide access to a keyboard. Even if the user can't read or write yet, the ability to "scribble" is important. We can show writing on the keyboard also. The AAC user should have the ability to start writing and seeing writing with a keyboard, on their AAC, as soon as possible.
An AAC system has a balanced vocabulary when you can communicate for a wide variety of reasons using core words, fringe vocabulary and the alphabet. This allows for powerful and independent communication for AAC learners.
Preprogrammed phrases and sentences
Some AAC systems rely heavily on pre-programmed phrases and sentences. This pre-programming involves scripting sentences. It depends on predicting what an AAC user wants to say and adding those sentences to a page. While this can be useful at times, it is far more important to establish communication based around core and fringe words. This gives the AAC user the opportunity and the vocabulary to independently say whatever they want, in any situation.
In balanced AAC systems, we need to consider using pre-programmed sentences differently. Ideally, the AAC user should write the included phrases.
If they can't write using the alphabet yet, they can use the words on their AAC system to write instead. Rather than the people around them guessing what they want to say, an AAC user can write the message and then save it onto a button to use later. This saves them time and ensures successful communication. It also means they are saying their own words, not someone else’s!
There are many ways AAC users can prepare to join conversations with their own thoughts and ideas.
The next step
We have considered carefully the importance of core words, fringe vocabulary, the alphabet and preprogrammed phrases in an AAC system. This helps us choose the best AAC system for our communicator, from all the different options available.
Once you have your AAC system chosen, the next step is to start customizing and personalizing the system.
Links & References