Sunday, October 17, 2010

From Phrase Based to Core Words

Most of the AAC users I have had in my classroom over the years have used programming on their devices that is phrase based.  Entire sentences or at least independent clauses are programmed on each button.  This is usually the chosen method of programming by the SLP and TEAM because of significant cognitive and/or access issues.  The low-tech version of this is topic boards. 

Let's face it chaining a sentence or linking multiple meaning symbols together to form a thought is generally more complex intellectually and requires more activations (by they direct selection, switch or eye gaze) per sentence than phrase based programming.  Yet, it is widely understood that core vocabulary programming using the top 100 words in the language plus fringe vocabulary is best practice for AAC users.  Core vocabulary allows a wider array of messages to be displayed, reduces AAC user reliance on the person programming their device to have the correct message and has limited means of growth in communication competency for the user. 

So how do we begin to move our early or emerging communicators using phrased based AAC towards core vocabulary AAC design?

That is a complex question and the answer will be different for every AAC user.  Here are some ideas we have been trying:
  • direct instruction of core vocabulary - i.e. word of the week, highlighting core words in other curriculum activities, core word bingo, etc
  • static core words on every page or in every page set (top left buttons are always, "I", "want" and "don't", bottom left are always, "more" and "done", etc.)
  • move away from "topic boards" towards "core vocabulary" plus fringe vocabulary even on manual boards and lower tech devices (this has the bonus of saving hours of time and programming on devices like Go Talks, Cheap Talks and TechTalks), thus a cooking overlay with core vocabulary for cooking (I, you, want, don't, come, go, more, all done, plus certain fringe words like stir, cook, pour, measure) rather than a new overlay for every recipe
  • for high tech AAC users currently using phrased based communication provide a link to a core vocabulary based system which allows the user to begin to supplement phrase based communication with core vocabulary, teach the student how to go to that page set and how to use it
  • teach communicator partners to respect "good tries" and look for the essence of a message, thus, "I go store" can mean, "I went to the store", "I want to go to the store", "I am going to go to the store", "I want to play store", etc.  (This is important in phrase based communication too, where, "I miss my brother" can mean, "My brother is coming home from college this weekend" or "I am thinking about my brother because he likes this recipe we are making".)
  • WAIT - learning and using AAC takes time, learning to compose thoughts with AAC takes time, we need to be patient


  1. Kate
    What a great post! I am planning on printing this out and actually POSTING it in classrooms as a reminder - awesome, as usual!

  2. Kate,
    I really like this idea, it really helps focus what I want to work on. What core words are you using? do you have a list of the most common words that you go off of?


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