Virginia Commonwealth University
May 23, 2011
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Mona D. Pruett, M.S., OT/L

One of my son’s first words was “up.” “Up” had a lot of meanings. When used with outstretched arms it meant, “Pick me up.” When accompanied with pulling, it meant, “Get up.” When associated with pointing, it meant “upstairs.” One word had a variety of meanings for him, but his intentions were clear.

This communication page on the Touch Chat AAC application shows the arrangement of core vocabulary words.

Setting up communication systems for students with communication challenges should also allow them to communicate effectively in all situations. No matter what communication device you have chosen to implement with your students, incorporating core vocabulary words maximizes the students’ ability to communicate in a variety of settings.

What are core vocabulary words?

Core vocabulary words are words that are used frequently and can be used across contexts to express meaning and intent. Eighty percent of our vocabulary is made up of about 200 to 300 core words (Van Tatenhove, 2007). Core vocabulary words tend to be verbs, pronouns and demonstratives.

What happened to nouns? Nouns tend to be context-specific. When we build communication systems for our students that contain only nouns, we limit their ability to develop language skills. For example, if a communication display contains only choices of food, activities or colors, how will the student be able to ask a peer to join him in an activity or comment on the taste of the cafeteria food? In addition, we will end up with a communication system too big to carry, too complex to navigate and too time-consuming to implement.

Gail Van Tatenhove has outlined strategies for implementing communication systems using a core vocabulary approach. She recommends starting with core words that mediate or regulate an activity (e.g., more, again, all done, turn, different) and then adding words that comment or relate to an activity (e.g., like, fun, yucky).

Another way to make sure that you have included core language in your communication system is to do an activity-based language sample. An activity-based language sample looks at all language that takes place within a designated time frame between communication partners and also records the communication intent of the language. A sample form to complete an activity-based language sample was developed by Sharon Jones and Kelly Ligon at the Virginia Department of Education’s Training and Technical Assistance Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. Using this form or a similar form will allow you to organize the communication exchanges and develop a communication system that encourages more language than only naming or requesting objects.

How are core vocabulary displays designed?

Core vocabulary designs can be designed for both static communication displays and dynamic communication devices. Barbara Cannon from Spotsylvania Public Schools has authored a webshop, “A Few Good Words: Using Core Vocabulary to Support Nonverbal Students,” located on the T/TAC website under the Online Training tab. This webshop is full of templates, pictures and core vocabulary lists to use when developing communication systems.

Another key element in designing core vocabulary communication systems is keeping the location of the core words consistent between displays or devices. For example, a student using his communication system needs to know that “here” is always located in the upper corner [see image above]. This allows communication exchanges to be more automatic.

How does the implementation of core vocabulary help language development?

Using a communication system designed around core vocabulary also facilitates natural language development. Linda Burkhart (2010) talks about aided-language stimulation as a way to develop language in users of communication systems. She explains aided-language stimulation as a way to model the use of the communication symbols to say real things in real situations. When using aided-language stimulation the teacher points to each symbol as he/she is speaking to the student. By modeling this behavior, the student learns more about how the symbols connect to form language rather than using a “this picture means that” approach.

Using an aided-language approach assumes enough core vocabulary is included to allow the student to say what he wants to say, when he wants to say it. Modeling the use of a communication system allows the student to learn within the natural context of activities. When implementing the use of a communication system designed with a core vocabulary approach, more than one device will need to be available within the environment so that the student with communication challenges can see communicating peers, teachers and assistants model the use of the communication device.
Designing communication systems around a core set of words that are frequently occurring in all aspects of the students’ environment gives the student the ability to learn language and communicate with intent. Communication opportunities will be opened to the student for participating in classroom activities, engaging in community-based opportunities and developing social networks. Therefore, the student is on the path to successful inclusion in society.


Burkhart, L. (2010). Aided Language Stimulation: Research to Practice. Retrieved February 17, 2011 from

Van Tatenhove, G. (2007). Normal language development, generative language & AAC. Retrieved from on February 18, 2011.



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