Core Vocabulary in a Mainstream Second Grade:

Core Vocabulary in a Mainstream Second Grade:
A Case Study of Two AAC Users
Baker, B.
Changing vocabulary demands on AAC systems and their users in
mainstream settings are a focus. Understanding the demands in terms of core
and extended vocabulary can bring some clarity. This case study follows the
progress, with language data, of two boys using speech-generating devices
through kindergarten, first, and second grades.
The distinction between core and extended vocabulary was first made for
special populations in the groundbreaking article by Mein & O’Connor (1961). It
was discovered that the speech of people with moderate to severe cognitive
impairments, living in a residential center, could be divided into words of great
frequency (core vocabulary) and words used infrequently (fringe or extended
vocabulary). Such a distinction can be made across typically developed
populations and clinical populations including augmented communicators. Core
vocabulary is like the proverbial 80/20 rules so popular in self-help and business
books. Twenty percent of our vocabulary (or even less) accounts for 80 percent
(or more) of what we say. Eighty percent of the words we use never make up
more than 20 percent of what we say.
Banajee, et al. (2001) found that 96 percent of the total words uttered by
typically developing toddlers were made up of 25 simple words.
all done/finished
Beukelman, Jones, & Rowan (1989) found the same patterns in the
speech of typically developing pre-schoolers.
In the present study of preschool children, the 50 most
frequently occurring words represent approximately 60% of the total
sample, while the 100 most frequently occurring words accounted
for 73% of the total sample.
Vanderheiden & Kelso (1988) found the same phenomenon in the elicited
speech corpus of middle aged adults by Howes (1966).
... the 50 most frequently occurring words of a sample
account for 40 to 50% of the total words communicated, while the
100 most frequently occurring words accounted for 60% of the total
Balandin & Iacono (1999) collected conversational samples from 34 nondisabled subjects at four worksites during meal breaks. They analyzed the total
sample for core and fringe vocabulary and found that a small stable core of 347
words accounted for 78 percent of the total words (276,000) in the sample.
Hill (2001) conducted 40 hours of interviews with 20 adult, self-taught
augmented communicators, using speech generating devices (SGD). Data
analysis indicates the 100 most frequently occurring words account for 62.3
percent of the total words used. The most frequently occurring 250 words
comprised 78 percent of the total words used.
Stuart, et al. (1997) identified the vocabulary use patterns of 65 to 74 year
old and 75 to 85 year old adults. The percentage of the total sample represented
by the 250 most common words was 78 percent for both groups.
The importance of core vocabulary and its statistical domination of speech
and prose are quite counter intuitive. When people think about their own speech
and language, they tend to notice unusual words rather than the background
tapestry of core words. If one asks colleagues what words they have said before
breakfast, they will reflect upon the unusual words not upon the simple, common
words. They may say, “Toaster.” “I had to ask my spouse where the new toaster
was.” Or, he or she will begin naming nouns like “toothbrush,” “toothpaste.” When
the questioner asks whether they thought about toothbrush, or actually said it,
the answer is usually that the words went unsaid. The next question is: “Did you
say “of”? The reply is, “Yes, but I can’t remember, nor do I remember how many
times.” Thus people have a skewed perception of the words they use. The
special, the unusual become salient. The common remains invisible.
To help us get a feel for how the dominance of core vocabulary actually
works, examples will make the data come alive. What follows are five samples of
childhood speech. The ages range from two years, six months to over six years.
In the following data, bolding (blue) indicates core words from the
Banajee 26-word toddler vocabulary, while italics (red) indicates core words from
the Marvin 333-word preschool vocabulary.
Bill (2 yr. 6 mo.)
Want that
Go down
Me do it
Uhoh, go down
Want that one
I see it
It fall
What that
He fall
Big one
Go up
I do
More go down
My car
Oh yeah
No more
Gimme it
He crash it
I need it
You go down
TD - Tim (3 yr. 3 mo.)
I put it on
I gonna put it up
You do it
Up there
Gimme it
I put it up there
No, you don’t put it
You have it
Now you put it up
I did it
I put it way up
Where this go?
This one a cow
It can’t go
It go right here
He’s a horse
Not here
Quack a duck
It fits
I put it right here
Where this one go?
He goes here
You do it
Not there
I saw this book
They crawl
Those are funny
They look like grapes
They could
That was a good
Like if you think he
runned away
Grasshopper starts
with a g”
My favorite color is
Make ‘em ride it
Yeah but . . .
I can’t sit there
cause I talk too
Me and Jennifer are
I have to do this one
When I’m done I’m
gonna go outside
Are you gonna go
I know that one
Where is it?
This one is hard to
do cause it’s so
I got it
You have three more
to do
You want this?
There’s more over
TD - Rosey (4yr. 8 mo.)
I don’t see it
I do
I saw a butterfly
They’re scared
They might get hurt
Ooh, what is that?
They’re like that tiny
I can see them
TD - Sylvia (5 yr. 2 mo.)
Right here next to
Did they move seats?
I need to get my
Are you going to sit
Why is she going to
sit there?
The central thesis of this paper has three parts. The first is that core
vocabulary dominates everyday speech. The second is almost all concepts
can be simply expressed using core vocabulary, and the third is that we can
avoid the need to build pages endlessly for academic words by teaching
students to express academic concepts using core vocabulary.
The implications of these three notions have enormous importance in
augmentative communication. If students can use core vocabulary in
academic settings, then the speech therapist’s job can become that of
teaching core vocabulary rather than adding specialized vocabulary.
For the past two years, this process has been followed for second
grade twin boys (Joshua H. and Caleb H.) with cerebral palsy in the public
schools of Pennsylvania. The results of this educational process predict that
what works for these boys will work for others. The road has been a bit
bumpy. Quite a few common but not high frequency words have been added
to the core vocabulary. These words include animal names, activity names,
storybook characters and features, teachers’ names, clothes, school subjects,
body parts, and disability equipment.
Teachers have sometimes insisted that certain non-core technical
words be added when a clear and easy circumlocution was available, e.g.,
patriotism (love my country/where I live), vote (tell who I want), mayor (person
in charge of city), germinate (wake up and grow). At other times, academic
words have been added, because they were deemed to be good parts of a
permanent vocabulary, e.g., north, south, east, west, tax, law, solid, liquid,
1. Joshua- 3-29-06 (Josh wrote the story to go along with existing pictures
and title “What can Kim do?”)
Kim can play music in the house.
Mrs. Dartnell, Can I have the dress and shoes and hat?
She is playing with the shoes and box.
Kim plays dressup. I am snow white.
I am a queen.
Dad says hi.
It’s nice to meet you.
2. Caleb 5-06 (Caleb wrote this story to go along with existing pictures and
title: “Tom turkey gets wet.” -- animals are standing at a bus stop in the rain)
Good morning. Hi Tom. How are you? I’m fine. I’m not so good.
Kelsey, do you have a nickel?
The turtle has a nickel. The tiger does not have a nickel.
The turkey does not have a nickel.
Put oodles of money in the pocket. He will be rich. (note:
he found oodles via word prediction, shouting a big “yes” when
he got his word! You will also note that he does not yet use
possessive pronouns)
The bird gets angry. He is wet. (a dog shakes water all
over him in the picture.)
3. Caleb3-20-06 (another story to go with pictures. Here you can see the initial
idea and the editing process to get the sentence. Title: who wears a hat?
Caleb gets fired up about writing and wants to get his thoughts out quickly,
even if jumbled. Then he goes back and fixes the sentences, because he
knows that they don’t sound right. Occasionally, the staff gets too involved
and “directs” the editing a lot, but I really don’t think that happened much in
this story.)
Cake sing to girl happy birthday.
They sing happy birthday to the girl.
Boys and girls are playing baseball.
Swimming boy.
They are swimming in the pool.
I wish I was playing at the beach. (I have a feeling this sentence
was prompted by the staff!)
The boy eat.
The boy is cooking. He wants to eat.
He horse jumping. (an attempt at possessive pronouns?)
The boy is jumping on the horse.
The girl in the power chair sings to the boy.
Mrs. H. and Katya Hill, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh are collaborating
in the full analysis of Joshua and Caleb’s language production through
meticulously maintained documentation using the Language Activity Monitor
(LAM).* They have been looking at utterance generation methods
(spontaneous novel utterance generation or pre-stored sentences), language
representation methods (single meaning pictures, spelling, semantic
compaction), and vocabulary frequency. These data are being analyzed for
mean length of utterance (MLU), both word and morpheme, grammatical
morphemes, syntax (SALT). This material is still in manuscript form.
The teaching staff have slowly adapted to asking questions that can be
answered descriptively rather than referentially for the boys. The school
speech pathologist is enthusiastic and plans to be adopting the core
vocabulary approach for some of her other clients. Both boys have a
diagnosis of cerebral palsy and moderate cognitive impairment. Preliminary
analyses of the data show increase in core vocabulary frequency as well as
increased frequency in use of the communication aid outside school
environments. The boys exhibit a strong preference for novel utterance
generation. Their MLUs have grown significantly as has their overall
communication rate on the devices and their use of vocalizations.
Balandin, Susan & Iacono, Teresa. (1999) Adolescent and Young Adult
Vocabulary Usage, Augmentative and Alternative Communication
(AAC), Volume 14, No. 3, September.
Banajee, Meher, Dicarlo, C., & Stricklin, S. B. (2003). Core Vocabulary
Determination for toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative
Communication (AAC), 19, 67-73.
Sheela Stuart, David R. Beukelman, and Julia King, Vocabulary Use during
Extended Conversations by Two Cohorts of Older Adults AAC
Augmentative and Alternative Communication, Volume 13, 40-47,
March, 1997