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, andinclude 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 learner.
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. And they can learn to use core words to answer questions in the classroom, rather than memorising very specific curriculum words.
Core words are powerful, flexible and can be used in so many different ways.
Providing AAC learners quick access to core words gives them a powerful and flexible tool to communicate whatever they want to say.
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.
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.
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!
Here is an example: An AAC user always wants to know what is happening next! Using his AAC, he starts regularly writing out questions for his parents. It starts as “what do?”, then “what do weekend?”. Eventually he combines seven buttons to ask “What will we do on the weekend?”. He asks this question a lot. We know he can say it. Does he have to prove himself every day by rewriting this message? No! Instead, we save this message onto one button in his Questions folder so he can say it quickly and easily anytime.
Pre-programmed phrases and sentences can be useful when used in this way. Other examples include: writing news and stories, saving favorite topics and ideas to talk about, pre-writing what you need to say for medical appointments, and having phrases to quickly say during difficult situations.
While we can see how useful pre-programmed sentences are, they should not be the key focus in an AAC system. Phrases and sentences should be added within the AAC system alongside their core words. This way, the AAC user can build upon them with their vocabulary of core words for more communication. When pre-programmed sentences by themselves are the priority pages in an AAC system, we are not giving the AAC learner the chance to develop independent communication.
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.