Sunday, July 24, 2016

What is a robust vocabulary in AAC?

Robust vocabulary is one of those terms you encounter frequently in the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) community.  It is a term that isn't always explained. Here is an overview of what a Robust AAC Language System includes:
  • Motor planning is supported by consistent vocabulary arrangement
  • Expandable vocabulary allowing it to grow as skills improve
  • Grammar is supported, including verb tenses, declensions and comparisons/superlatives 
  • Alphabet is available for spelling including supports of letter/word/phrase predication and spelling correction
  • Pre-programmed whole messages are available for fast moving social occasions and emergency situations 
  • Core words are available and are large in number with all parts of speech/word types represented 
(Look! That's an acrostic for MEGA PC!  A robust system is a MEGA Personal Communicator!)

So what do is meant by these things?

Motor planning is the ability to learn to access your vocabulary through muscle memory.  Think of the entering numbers on a phone or calculator, touch typing or even pressing the "home" button on your phone or tablet.  You are likely able to do these things without looking or thinking about them.  You know where the keys are and your body is able to find the right buttons.  Or think about driving home from a location your frequently visit.  You go on auto-pilot to some degree, finding yourself reaching for your turn signal before the turn.  This is muscle memory.  A robust vocabulary has been arranged with motor planning and muscle memory in mind in the hopes that users will learn to access their language system without having to think about where common words are located.

Expandable vocabulary is the ability to add words to the language system as skills increase.  This goes beyond the ability to hide and unhide buttons (mask and unmask buttons) or add in a word here or there.  It's the ability to start off with less buttons per page and move to more buttons per page as vision, vocabulary or access skills increase without having to learn a whole new language system.  When systems do not allow for this they are essentially insisting those that need to start with less buttons at first because of vision or access issues must learn a whole new language when they are ready for more buttons.  Or the converse, when someone who is able to access many buttons per page looses some ability, as is frequent in some conditions that cause a need for AAC, the user must start all over again.   A robust system allows the user to increase (or decrease) the available vocabulary as skills change.

Grammar means the ability for the user to generate sentences that use correct and understandable grammar.  It is the ability to use all tenses of verbs and all declensions of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs.  Grammar is the ability to say, "Last week my brother and I went to a great restaurant and tomorrow we will go again" instead of  "Last week my brother and I go to a good restaurant and tomorrow we go again." A robust system has the ability to access grammar to make sure the user can say exactly what he or she means to say.

Alphabet access is the ability for the user to spell in an efficient manner and have supports to do so.  Those supports might be letter/word/phrase prediction, abbreviation expansion, and grammar and spelling correction.  The only way to be 100% certain that an AAC user can say everything they want to say is to give them access to spelling and teach them how to use it!  There is no such thing as putting "All.The.Words!" as many AAC supporters like to advocate on a device.  That is because their are about 1,025,109 words in the English language!  Even if you limited a device to the approximately 750,000 words in active use without their various forms (which adds about 10,000 more words) there is no way to fit all those words into a word based language system!  Compare that to the about 6,000 words in Unity 84 Sequenced or 12,000 in Proloquo2Go (set to advanced Crescendo with all buttons available).  Suffice it to say "All.The.Words!" means spelling.  A robust language system has access to the alphabet and the supports to use it well.  

Pre-Programmed Messages are phrase or sentence based messages available for playing back in very specific situations.  They are helpful in fast moving situations, places that follow a certain script or times when communication partners may not know or be able to wait for a message to be created.  An example might be at the pharmacy.  An AAC user picking up medication at a pharmacy will likely follow a certain script.  "I am picking up a script for _______.", "My address is _________." (Or birthdate, depending on the pharmacy) and "Thank you."  There are a few things that might be needed for trouble shooting "There should be X prescriptions." or "My co-pay should be X".  Having these messages ready means faster service, not holding up the line and getting on to errands that may be more fun.  Pre-programmed Messages are also useful in social situations such as passing time in the hall at school.  They are also necessary in emergencies.  Examples might be, "I am having an aura.  I am going to have a seizure.  My emergency medication is in my bag in the outside pocket.  Call 9-1-1 if it lasts longer than 5 minutes." or "I am lost.  Please call my caregiver's cell phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX and give them this location."  Sometimes the see-saw of AAC heavily leans towards core words, and they are vital, but pre-programmed messages are also a key part of a robust AAC system.

Core Vocabulary has been the a strongly advocated basis of AAC Systems for many years.  Core vocabulary words make up 80% or more of what we say.  They are the recyclable words of our language able to be used and reused again and again in many, many situations.  A robust language system has a base of core language.  A lot of core language.  Some experts say at least 300 words.  Core words are the center of a robust language system. 

For information on robust AAC systems and teaching a robust language system see these links:


  1. Love this. I think motor planning is so important for kids who have apraxia. Great blogpost as always Kate.

  2. Yay! You did it! So glad our dinner conversation inspired you to write this! And I love, love, love the acrostic!

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