AAC Essentials: Core Vocabulary


What is core vocabulary and why is it essential for communication? This concept is essential to successful communication and needs to be more widely known.

Core vocabulary is the small number of words that we use the most often, no matter what the setting, our gender, age, etc. (Cross, Baker, Klotz & Badman, 1997).

Eighty percent of the words we use everyday come from a list of 200 words.  (Baker, Hill & Devylder, 2000) Words such as more, get, go, see, and, like, is, and can are words that we need the most. Many of these are words that can be used with a variety of meanings. For example, the word “turn” can be used to say turn off or on, turn around, turn the page, or my turn.

Research shows that toddlers use just 23 words for 96.3% of their utterances. (Banajee, Dicarlo,  & Stricklin, 2003) These words, in order of frequency are: I, no, yes, the, want, is, it, that, a, go, my, mine, you, what, on, in, here, more, out, off, some, help, and all done. Even seniors use a core group of 250 words for 78% of what they say, (Stuart & Beukelman, 1997).

Individuals from the AAC Institute did a study analyzing the language used by effective communicators. This was done through data logging on their AAC systems. The study found that 90-95% of the time these individuals were using core vocabulary and single words to compose messages; approximately 5-10% of the time they used extended or fringe vocabulary, and less than 3% of the time they used pre-stored messages or phrases. Fringe or extended vocabulary are words that are specific to the topic, the setting, our interests, etc.

Without core vocabulary, AAC users can’t come up with unique sentences and communicate in a variety of settings, throughout their day. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association “Communication is based on the use of the individual words of our language.  True communication is spontaneous and novel. Therefore, communication systems cannot be based significantly on pre-stored sentences. Communication requires access to a vocabulary of individual words suitable to our needs that are multiple and subject to change. These words must be selected to form the sentences that we wish to say.”

A typically developing child has acquired the majority of core vocabulary words he or she will need by about the first grade level. However, children using AAC are often sent on to school (preschool, kindergarten, etc.) with a limited vocabulary or pre-stored messages. By the time a typically developing child is 3, he or she already has a vocabulary of about 1000 words. Children entering school need to be able to talk to learn. We can’t send them to school expecting them to start learning the material and then learn to talk. If they don’t have that foundation of language before academics are started, then we won’t have a lot of academic success. Language precedes academics.

You may have seen an individual with an AAC system that can request basic wants… “I want eat,” “I want drink,” “I want more,” etc. but beyond requesting, they aren’t doing much else with their communication systems. Communication is much more than requesting! Other communicative functions include:

  • Naming
  • Commenting
  • Requesting objects
  • Requesting information
  • Responding
  • Protesting or rejecting
  • Greeting

Core vocabulary is also essential for literacy. Less than 10% of individuals who use AAC systems will read beyond the second grade level (Erickson, 2003) Most sight word lists used in schools are made up of core vocabulary words, such as those found on a Dolch word list.

Core vocabulary can be integrated into lessons from pre-school through high school, as illustrated in the webinar I presented: Core Vocabulary Across Everyday Settings. More detail can also be found in the accompanying Powerpoint. A YouTube video called The Language Stealers also illustrates the case for core vocabulary.



  • Baker, B., Hill, K., Devylder, R. (2000). Core Vocabulary is the Same Across Environments, California State University at Northridge (CSUN) Conference, Los Angeles, California.
  • Banajee, M., Dicarlo, C., & Stricklin, S. B. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), 19, 67-73.
  • Cross, R.T., Baker, B.R., Klotz, L.S. and Badman, A.L. (1997). Static and Dynamic Keyboards: Semantic Compaction in Both Worlds. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Southeast Augmentative Communication Conference, 9-17. Birmingham: SEAC Publications
  • Erickson, K. (2003). Reading comprehension in AAC. The ASHA Leader, 8(12), 6–9.
  • Stuart, S. and Beukelman, D. (1997). Most Frequently Occurring Words of Older Adults. AAC, Vol. 13.

About the author:

Julie Dunbar graduated from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville with a bachelor’s degree in speech language pathology and audiology. She then worked as a teacher’s assistant at the Illinois Center for Autism, giving her an initial exposure to AAC and AT. She attended Purdue University in Indiana where she earned my master’s degree in special education and did a two year practicum providing AAC and AT services to children grades pre-K through 12th grade. She taught special education for children K-3rd grade for two years in the Chicago area and became a regional consultant for an AAC device vendor. In 2013, she joined the Assistive Technology Exchange Center or ATEC in Santa Ana, CA as an AT Specialist.  ATEC is a program of Goodwill Orange Co. providing assistive technology services including evaluations, assessments, and trainings to communities across southern California.

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