Core Vocabulary for the Special Education Teacher

What is core vocabulary?

Core vocabulary are words that make up over 80% of the words we use. By teaching these specific words, students can use the vocabulary over many settings.  Core vocabulary is less limiting than choosing a specific topic or vocabulary to cover. 

What about the other 20%?

These are called fringe words.  These are typically nouns and are specific to an activity, place, or event.

Where to start with core vocabulary?

Start with a focus word or a word of the week, one that you have ideas on how to demonstrate and have the student practice.  Then MODEL MODEL MODEL! This is the most important element when teaching core.  Students need to see this being done.  What does this actually mean? Say your core word of the week is down.  If the student is learning just to say that word in isolation, you can model, “down steps” to go down the steps or “I down” for I am feeling down.  It is okay if the grammar portion is not correct- it is the meaning you are after.

It is key to model a level ahead of where your learner is.  For the above example, if your student is on the single word level, you will model two or three words. It will take time for you to become efficient at this as well!

As a special education teacher, it is important to collaborate with your speech therapist. They are experts in the area of communication, so being on the same page is key! When you are both working on the same targets, the rate of growth increases significantly!

Core vocabulary does not need to be high tech, you can start with a single paper sheet.  Print out what is on the student’s device.  Then simply circle the target word. This is low tech and easy access for students.

Here is an example of a ProLoQuo board. Print this out and circle the word of the week for an easy low tech option!


If using a paper board, laminate it.  Then, use a dry erase marker to circle the word of the week.  This draws the learner’s eyes right to it and makes them more likely to have success! 

Teaching core vocabulary in the classroom

There are several strategies to teaching core words, but in my classroom we have found using a word of the week is most effective.  As a team, we decide on one word to focus on for that week and we use it everywhere!

This means in every lesson, with every teacher, paraprofessional, and therapist- they are using the word of the week.  Imagine having everyone on board, the number of models the student will see significantly increases and hopefully the student will mimic!

This can seem overwhelming at first.  But, I created loads of materials to make your life easier! These books all are customizable to specific images, have ideas for you to use in the classroom, and other visuals for you to use around the room!

I use reading group several days a week to focus on the core word.  I use adapted books to engage learners and to practice the core word.  Using these adapted books, you can personalize them for each child’s device. They are editable and the specific visual can be dragged in! To learn more about how to use adapted books in the classroom, click here!

Tips for teaching Core Vocabulary:

    • Give your paraprofessionals several ideas of how to use the word so they have them before working with the student. They will not have to think of ways to use the word on the spot.
    • Use visuals everywhere. If the word of the week is open, put the same visual as on their AAC device on the toy bin, the bathroom door, the classroom door etc.  Integrate it into their environment.
    • Plan strategic ways to teach the word of the week. This can be done in reading groups, in speech therapy, and during social skills times.  Be thoughtful and strategic about it!

Let me know different ways you use core vocabulary in your classroom!

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