Core Vocabulary

15 - 20 minutes


Many learners who are minimally verbal would benefit from access to Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) as a Tier 1 foundational support for:

  • Language and communication
  • Academic teaching and learning
  • Social interaction and opportunities  

Core vocabulary offers a way for providers to support communication both individually as well as from a classroom-wide approach. 

Anticipated Outcome

By the end of this module, you'll have an increased understanding of core vocabulary along with the knowledge and skills to start communicating with your learners today!

Related Training

What is core vocabulary?

Core vocabulary is composed of a small number of powerful words that can be used frequently across all subjects, topics, and environments.  Research shows that approximately 85% of what speaking individuals say everyday could be expressed with approximately 250-350 words (which includes core words).  Universal Core vocabulary is a group of 36 core words that have been prioritized based on their usefulness in the academic and classroom contexts.  They allow users to complete a variety of communication functions such as making requests, refusals, gaining attention, making comments, and much, much more!  

Watch Sara Pericolosi, Assistive Technology (AT)/AAC Specialist for Alt+Shift, describe the difference between core and fringe vocabulary.  If you don't have a core vocabulary system, download and print a Universal Core vocabulary board to start practicing!

How is core vocabulary different than fringe vocabulary?

Core vocabulary are words that are abstract which allows them to be used in a variety of settings, regardless of topic, context, or activity.  This flexibility allows for core vocabulary to be modeled and utilized throughout the day.  In comparison, fringe vocabulary are concrete words that are activity specific which makes them limiting in regards to their communicative power. 

Comparing fringe vocabulary to core vocabulary
Fringe Vocabulary Core Vocabulary
Large number of words Small number of words
Low frequency of use High frequency of use
Applicable in limited settings, topics, activities and/or contexts Applicable in a variety of settings, topics, activities and/or contexts
ball, habitat, sum not, he, all

How do I teach core vocabulary?

It’s essential that those working with learners who are minimally verbal model use of core vocabulary throughout the day.  In an effort to support learners, providers should:

  • Model (i.e. point to one or more symbols while speaking) regularly and consistently across a variety of environments.  To allow students to make meaningful connections between spoken words and symbols you might say, "I want all of it" as you point to the symbols on the board.
  • Make comments rather than asking questions. When we primarily ask questions, it reduces the opportunities to model a diverse use of symbols and intents.
  • Encourage and invite learners to communicate using core vocabulary.  Use long pauses with expectant facial expressions. Using AAC can take time, so be patient!
  • Do not require learners to use core vocabulary or take a student’s hand and use hand-over-hand to have them point to symbols.  This type of behavior decreases a student's role as an active communicator and it also negatively impacts their authentic communication.
  • Acknowledge and attribute meaning to all forms of communication (i.e. gestures, eye gaze, pointing to symbols, vocalizations, etc.).
  • Expand the AAC user's message. For example, if a student points to "more", you can expand and model "want more."

Why utilize core vocabulary?

Communication is the foundation for learning and connecting with one another.  Core vocabulary allows learners to connect with others and share what they know.  

Research has shown that learners begin to use the symbols that they are taught.  Universal Core vocabulary consists of 36 words that are able to be generalized across all settings and activities.  For this reason, we can provide hundreds of meaningful models to learners throughout a single day.  Universal Core vocabulary is easy to acquire and start using today, regardless of your background or training.  

Watch  Dr. Karen Erickson, Director at the Center of Literacy and Disabilities Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill talk about why you should get started with Universal Core vocabulary today!  Dr. Erickson speaks about Universal Core vocabulary within the context of supporting literacy skills.  If you'd like to learn more, visit our full professional learning opportunities on conventional literacy and emergent literacy instruction for students with complex communication needs. 

Who would benefit from core vocabulary?

Core vocabulary is beneficial for learners with minimal expressive communication or those without symbolic communication, including those with cognitive impairments.  This includes learners that rely on early forms of communication such as vocalizations, gestures, facial expressions, as well as students who are beginning to use signs, symbols, or words but cannot yet combine words together. 

How can learners access core vocabulary?

Learners can access and utilize core vocabulary within most communication apps or designated speech generating devices.  At Project Core's Communication Systems page you can download files to create individual and classroom sized print-based Universal Core vocabulary boards using PCS, SymbolStix, Widget Symbols, & 3-D symbols.  If your student uses core vocabulary on a communication app or designated device, check out Project Core's Communication Apps and Speech Generating Device Product Keys page. This site contains printable copies of core vocabulary for communication partners and AAC users to become more familiar with the language organization of the app or device.  

Who can support student learning of core vocabulary?

If you interact with learners who are minimally verbal or who have complex communication needs, you can impact their learning and use of core vocabulary. Core vocabulary can be supported by educational staff including teachers, paraprofessionals, ancillary staff, administration, custodians, bus drivers, and many more!

Assisting family members to model and encourage the use of core vocabulary outside of the school house is also important. When so many people are modeling and using these powerful words across the day, we can see gains in student’s expressive language skills relatively quickly.

Are you ready to start communicating with your learners today using Universal Core vocabulary?  Get started by: 

  • Printing off a Universal Core vocabulary board
  • If possible, laminating or placing the board inside of a page protector
  • Looking at your daily routine and thinking about what words and phrases you can model in a variety of activities
  • Start modeling communication for your learners and staff

Where can I find more information about core vocabulary?

Project Core offers supporting research, access to a variety of core vocabulary boards, and professional training modules. Content is geared toward:

  • The implementation of core vocabulary
  • Aided language input
  • Emergent literacy strategies