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What is Core Vocabulary?

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

Core vocabulary refers to high-frequency, commonly occurring words that can be used for a variety of functions across contexts. While there are thousands of words in the english language, core vocabulary is a small subset of 300-400 words that makes up 80% of what we say! These words are not specific to an activity, person, or context. When a person is learning to communicate, it is essential that we teach and model core vocabulary.

Core words can be used in isolation or by combining to form phrases and sentences. They are made up of pronouns, verbs, prepositions, determiners, interjections, and question words. Very few nouns are considered core words, because of their specific nature and limited flexibility for use across activities. Core vocabulary is important for all communicators, as these words are the building blocks of language. I find that introducing core vocabulary is helpful for all of my students, regardless of whether they are verbal communicators or AAC users.

When introducing core vocabulary, consistency is key. One strategy for staying consistent is to use a color-coding and organization system to encourage learning and motor planning. Consistently well-constructed supports lower cognitive demands and enhance users’ attention which can contribute to better functional communication outcomes. There are several organization systems out there, but my personal preference is the modified Fitzgerald Key.

The Fitzgerald Key is a system of color-coding and organization based on grammatical categories and parts of speech. In this system, vocabulary is organized from left-to-right in the way in which sentences are constructed, with pronouns on the left, actions in the middle, and objects/descriptions on the right. Looking at the above core board, you will notice that all pronouns are yellow, verbs are green, and adjectives are blue, etc.

Whether you use the Fitzgerald Key or another system with your student should be decided by the individual’s particular needs and preferences. The important thing is that you stick with whatever organization system you choose! This will help everyone remember where to find words as well as enhance the individual’s understanding of grammar and categorization.

When I first started learning about core vocabulary, I admit, I was skeptical. I worried that core words would be too abstract for my students with CCN who were mostly used to using picture symbols of highly preferred items and common objects. I was concerned that my students would be overwhelmed by the amount of vocabulary on the core board. I thought back to that statistic that tells us that 80% of our daily interactions consist of core vocabulary. I realized that if I didn’t teach my students to understand core vocabulary, they would be missing out on 80% of the language they hear on a daily basis. This blew my mind! If I stuck to only teaching requesting and labeling nouns, my students would only be able to effectively engage in about 20% of all communication happening around them. I knew I had to start incorporating core vocabulary with my students.

Getting started with core vocabulary can feel daunting. Did I have to get rid of all of the visual supports I had previously made, such as picture symbols and choice boards? No! It is so important to remember that teaching nouns and specific words is also necessary for a well rounded, robust vocabulary! Nouns and other context-specific words are referred to as fringe vocabulary. Fringe vocabulary makes up the other 20% of communication!

Imagine your child or student is using this choice board and he wants to play with bubbles. He could certainly request bubbles with this type of visual support. This kind of support is great for making choices and requests! However, once the request is made, the communication exchange would likely end.

Now imagine that your child has this choice board of preferred objects in addition to the core vocabulary board. He could ask for bubbles. He could tell you to “open” the bubbles or put the wand “in.” He could tell you to “go” as you hold the wand to your lips. He could describe the bubbles as “big” or “small.” He could ask you “where” the bubbles went when they popped. He could comment “my turn” or “you do it.” He could say that he feels “happy!” By using core vocabulary, even a simple activity like bubbles can become a rich, supportive environment for fostering communication. When presented during motivating activities, core vocabulary words aren’t as abstract as they once seemed.

We all need to hear a word more than once to really learn its meaning. Research tells us that individuals with average IQs will need to be exposed to a word approximately 35 times before being able to use and understand it consistently. Individuals with below average IQ and cognitive impairments may require anywhere from 40-55+ exposures before learning a word (McDonald, 1999). So, what does that have to do with core vocabulary?

Let’s think back to the bubbles. How often do we say, use, or learn about the word “bubbles”? Maybe once a week? Once a day? It would take us quite a while to expose the child to this word 35 or more times.

Now let's think about how often we use the associated core words (go, open, in)?

GO: go to bathroom, go to lunch, go to table, time to go, go get the…, we go, I go, you go, go next, go first, let’s go

OPEN: open it, open eyes, open play-doh, open marker, open snack, not open, open window, open door, open mouth

IN: in chair, in class, put in, in line, in lap, in box, in pocket

We use these words so much more often and across contexts. If we taught these words, the child would quickly be exposed enough times to establish meaning. By teaching and modeling core vocabulary, we can provide our students with enough exposures to functional language necessary to promote learning! The good news is that we already use core vocabulary constantly throughout the day. These aren't new vocabulary words. What will be new is the way we model and highlight these words throughout the day. In upcoming posts, we will talk about how we can start teaching core words during the activities and lessons we already have planned!




- Soto Rodríguez, G. M, & Zangari, C. (2009). Practically speaking : language, literacy, and academic development for students with AAC needs. Baltimore, Md.: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.