Core Vocabulary: Why and How Teach Core Words In Special Education

Core vocabulary is, in essence, using a little to say a lot. With CORE words you can teach your students: initiation, commenting, requesting, asking and more...

Core Vocabulary: Why and How Teach Core Words In Special Education


What is Core Vocabulary? 

 As it turns out, there is a relatively small chunk of words (roughly 350 words) that people use in order to communicate about 80% of what they say.

In other words, we use and re-use the same high-frequency words throughout the day for the majority of our communication. These 350 or so words are what we refer to as “core vocabulary” because they make up the core of our communication.

What may be surprising are the types of words that are part of this core group- words like “it,” “go,” “put,” “stop,” “little.”

The Ultimate getting started guide for Core Words Vocabulary for Speech Therapy. Written by a SLP who works with special education students daily!

These words may seem insignificant in the face of burlier words like “stethoscope” and “volcano,” but they pack a much bigger punch. Consider it this way: have you used the words stethoscope or volcano today?

Maybe you have if you are a doctor or are planning your next vacation to Hawaii, but I’m going to safely assume that it’s those other words like “it” and “go” that have been rolling off of your tongue all day.

This knowledge that we can say a whole lot with a pretty small group of words has extremely important implications for our special education students.

With exposure and access to that small group of core vocabulary students can communicate in all the ways that are natural to us: commenting, asking, requesting, initiating conversation, rejecting, expressing feelings and so on.

With access to core vocabulary words, there is access to sentence building and free expression.

It’s the difference between giving a student an icon for all of the items he may come across at the doctor’s office (there’s that stethoscope!) and giving a student icons for more powerful words such as “scared” “what?” “hurt here.”

 Core vocabulary is, in essence, using a little to say a lot.

 core vocabulary activities boards books speech AAC classroom teaching word of the week wall products communication

With CORE words you can teach your students: initiation, commenting, requesting, asking and more... they're serious multi-taskers! 

What Does CORE Mean for Our Students?

As an SLP (or educational professional in general) there are always opportunities to learn new things- always a plethora of new ideas and concepts waiting to be explored. This can be exciting and refreshing, but it can also be overwhelming at times.

For me, core vocabulary started out as one of those overwhelming things.

I had heard about it here and there and I was genuinely interested, but at that time it only existed as a buzzword on the periphery of my daily work.

Looking back it seems that there was a clear path that I needed to travel in order to get to where I am now- a place of involvement, motivation and hope.

For me, there have been three key parts of this journey:

1) The realization

2) The knowledge 

3) The liftoff

With any luck, hearing about this journey can help you navigate your own journey and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, take core vocabulary out of the periphery and bring it into focus.

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Part 1: The CORE Realization

I was at Closing the Gap 2014 in Minnesota when I got my first real taste of core vocabulary.

To preface this, I had come from a world where it was the norm for students to be using loose pictures or a selection of icons on a page-based system to “communicate” throughout their day.

But there was a rampant problem: they weren’t communicating.

Of course, there were personal successes here and there, but overall my students were not learning to communicate.

At best, they were learning to make requests.

Requests for cookies, crackers, breaks and play time with the forever-requested tablet. Now, to give everyone their due, the whole team had worked very hard to make requesting a success.

The hardest workers of all were the students.

But it was that first video clip I saw of a classroom using core vocabulary to actually communicate (to comment and question and converse!) that changed my entire outlook on AAC.

I saw students using single words to make profound statements (“Don’t!” “Go” “Stop” “Look”).

I saw students experimenting and putting words together to get their own unique messages across (“I do it” “Want that” “I like it”).

I saw teachers communicating with students, students communicating with each other, and a program with enough strength to support language growth throughout the entire day.

In an instant, I was convinced that core vocabulary was going to offer so much more to my students.

What was the moment of realization for you? Have you had it yet?

Part 2: The Knowledge

Our gut feelings are some of our most important tools. As clinicians and educators, we know this. My gut feeling that I needed to implement core vocabulary was a strong first step.

However, a gut feeling can only get you so far. The next step in the journey is education. It’s not enough to know that something works. To be truly invested, we need to understand why it works.

In an effort to better grasp this thing called core vocabulary I needed to jump in headfirst and get educated.

I began where most of us do- with a good old internet search. There are a lot of fantastic resources out there.

One of the most well-known blogs for AAC was one of my first stops: PrAACtical AAC. I bounced around and collected information from wherever I could, but decided I would benefit from grasping the big picture.

That’s the mindset that eventually brought me to the Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series.

Unlike anything else I have ever heard of, this seminar is a 2 & ½ day immersion in all that is core. Learning from some of the most influential people in the AAC field (name dropping Bruce Baker, Tracy Kovach, and Caroline Musselwhite!) is a surefire way to ground yourself in the basics.

And, just in case the impressive presenters aren’t quite enough to get you off of your seat and moving, there are other amazing perks to the experience. How about FREE registration?!

How about meals and lodging provided?! In case it sounds too good to be true, I can personally vouch that this was easily the most hospitable experience of my life!

Interested in seeing if the Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series might be a good fit for you? Check it out here.

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Part 3: The Liftoff: How to Implement CORE Vocabulary

core vocabulary activities boards books speech AAC classroom teaching word of the week wall products communication

Rolling out a core vocabulary program bridges the gap between “interesting” and “practical.” Each day is a test drive, but one that is backed by knowledge and inspiration.

If you are lucky then you have colleagues who have been going on this exploration of core vocabulary with you (I was lucky!)

But, regardless of whether or not you start as a team or as a solo act, the first stage in the “liftoff” is spreading the word.

For me, as an SLP, this meant that I needed to reach a variety of people.

I needed to reach out to administrators, to other SLPs, and to special education teachers. I took what I had learned about core vocabulary and organized it.

It seemed to make sense that all of the information that had motivated me would motivate others as well.

This, in a surprisingly short period of time, turned into what looked like a suitable presentation on the topic.

I started slowly.

I had some laidback talks with a program coordinator about what I had learned and why it could be so beneficial to our special education program.

The more I talked about the knowledge I had acquired, the deeper rooted it became. 

I knew once people had a glimpse, that core vocabulary would appeal to them- at least to some of them initially. This is where a team can start to form.

If you spark an interest then people will come to you for more (which is pretty handy when you are ready to move on from that solo act)!

core vocabulary activities boards books speech AAC classroom teaching word of the week wall products communication

Getting Going with Core Vocabulary Visuals:

 There’s nothing better than a good visual cue to keep people on target.  

And that isn’t just true for students- it’s true for professionals too.

A classroom that makes core vocabulary a living piece of the scenery is more likely to be successful in helping students to communicate.   

Here are three ideas to help create core vocabulary visuals that will serve a purpose:

Functional Labeling:

It isn’t uncommon to walk into a classroom and see labeling: the word “computer” written above the computer station or the word “door” on (take a guess!) . . . the door.  

This is meant to help increase a child’s vocabulary. But how functional are these labels? The answer is . . . they aren’t.  

There’s not a whole lot a student can communicate by identifying or using the word computer.  

But labeling isn’t a complete wash! Let’s consider what we could do if we just changed the way that we are labeling and decided to use our good friend Core Vocabulary.  

So computer isn’t a core word, but consider what kinds of functional core words could be placed above the computer area instead: “turn on,” “turn off,” “want this.”

What about the sink area?  Try “get clean” or “turn on.”

We can even label something as simple as a chair: “sit down.” One of the most obvious and influential places to label is the classroom door.  

You can choose to label simply: “go.” Or maybe you could expand your student's options by including some visuals of where the students might be headed.  

Now they can indicate “go eat,” “go bathroom,” “go walk,” “go sensory room.” Another option is to include some social language labeling.

The door could say “Come in” or even prompt “How are you?”  

The world opens up with a few functional labels. Consider the following labels and where you might place them in your own classroom:  

        • “I want”
        • “Read”
        • “Want help”
        • “Work”
        • “Play”
        • “My turn”
        • “Your turn”
        • “Hot”
        • “Cold”
        • “Get that”
        • “Eat this”

Core Vocabulary Word Wall:

  A great way to build motivation is to let your students feel proud of their accomplishments.  

Consider printing a giant version of whatever core vocabulary communication board you are using (This can even be done by printing in sections from your own printer, FYI!).  

Not only does it serve as a great visual for actual use, but it can also be used to mark the students’ language development.

For instance, every time the class learns a new icon you can put it up on the giant word wall.  

Make an event out of it- let the students be proud!

Another option that we loved doing for our students was initially printing a giant word wall in black and white.

Then, as the students progressed, they got to add colored icons for the words that they had become independent with.  

They loved getting to add new icons and it was a great way for them to see how far they had come.

They wanted to use core vocabulary more and more simply so that they could add icons in color.

It was an amazing win-win for the students and the professionals that care for them.

Core Out Your Campus

The classroom is the first place we think of when we are discussing visuals. 

And it makes sense- that is where the students spend the majority of their time.  

But it is so crucial to stop and consider the greater picture. Students who are using core vocabulary will not only be expected to communicate with peers in their classroom.  

As they get older they need to be able to communicate in the greater world: at the doctor’s office, at the grocery store, at work, etc. This generalization to a variety of settings can be started early if you begin with your own campus.  

Consider putting communication boards up in all important areas: cafeterias, hallways, bathrooms.

One benefit is that your students will have access to communication all over campus.

But perhaps the best benefit is that general education students can become accustomed to seeing a new way of communicating.  

Exposure always fosters communication.

Consider making it a school-wide event that the general education students can help with- let them connect with your students by hanging communication boards in their own classrooms. 

Core Vocabulary Throughout the Day

core vocabulary activities boards books speech AAC classroom teaching word of the week wall products communication

One concept can either make or break you when it comes to implementing core vocabulary: how often you use it.

You can have the best intentions.

You can come up with the coolest activities to engage your students.  You can have an amazingly success session.  

All of these things are buildings blocks to a great foundation in core vocabulary.  

core vocabulary activities boards books speech AAC classroom teaching word of the week wall products communication

But the puzzle piece that glues everything together is time. Core vocabulary can only be truly successful when it is used consistently throughout the day.

For honesty’s sake, let’s just say that everybody experiences challenges and AdaptEd is no stranger to this.  

Early in the game it is easy to get lost in the excitement of trying something new and to lose track of the big idea in the process.  

For us, the cycle looked a little like this:  

1. Think of an amazing core vocabulary lesson or project that we can’t wait to try
2. Implement our lesson
3. Revel in the lesson’s success (Yay!  The students had fun using core vocabulary!)
    4. Revisit the lesson at the next session only to discover that the students had not maintained or carried-over any progress
    5. Start the cycle over again.  

    It took months for us to break the cycle.  

    We were working hard and seeing success within each individual activity, but we weren’t using core vocabulary throughout the school day to ensure that the students had enough exposure and practice.  

    Lesson learned! 

    So what does core vocabulary look like for us now?

    It doesn’t matter the activity or the subject- core vocabulary is the mode of communication. We have found core vocabulary a really useful addition to functional math time. 

    Words like “get, some, more, all” are a huge part of math in general, but they become so important to our students who are working on math in the community through purchasing items and keeping track of money.

    core vocabulary activities boards books speech AAC classroom teaching word of the week wall products communication

    Every subject can be “cored out,” but the down-time in between subjects is a perfect time for core vocabulary too.  

    Practice using your vocabulary during social moments to make comments (“I like that”).

    Try using core vocabulary to comment on how students are doing while they work or to encourage them (“Good work!”).  

    Try using core vocabulary to give directions to your students (“Sit down”). The more ways you use core vocabulary the more ways your students will be able to use it.

    The bottom line?  The big take-away?

    Make sure that all of your students’ time is useful time.

     Learn from our early mistakes and recognize that core vocabulary isn’t for a single activity or for “therapy time,” but for everyday life.

    -Meg (AdaptEd 4 Special Ed SLP) 

    P.S.  We've created a ton of great cored out resources that you can grab from.   And since you made it to the bottom of this MEGA post, we want to help you get started! 

    Here's a coupon you can use ONCE to get 15% off of any of our CORE Products.  Click here and it will automatically be applied.  

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    Mindy Acosta @ Tue, Aug 28, 18

    I teach a class of severely autistic kids at the elementary level. Its self-contained. I have quite a few kids who are nonverbal or functionally nonverbal (they have some words but not a lot). They aren’t at a level that the district would consider using an AAC. I like this idea. How can I implement it in my classroom so its accessible to as many kids as possible? Is there a set list of words I should start with? I don’t want huge graphics everywhere because of the visual distraction but I’m up for smaller (5 inches or under) graphics. I want to help these kids and I think this is the ticket.

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