Tips to Teach Core Vocabulary for Special Education Teachers

In special education, we are often given students who use AAC devices to communicate but are never taught how to teach them to use their device. We assume that they will learn it during their speech sessions- right? Well, if we want our students to be using their AAC devices functionally we need to be doing more than just having them use it during speech. The best way to do that is by modeling using core vocabulary!

Core vocabulary, comprised of high-frequency words essential for communication across a variety of contexts, serves as a fundamental building block for language development. In this blog post, we are going to go into all things core vocabulary, exploring its significance for special education teachers and its impact on communication outcomes for students with diverse needs. If you need materials for core vocabulary only, scroll down to the bottom for some links!

What is core vocabulary?

Core vocabulary consists of high-frequency words that are essential for communication across various contexts and activities. This is different than fringe vocabulary, which comprises specific or topic-related words. Core vocabulary comprises words that are versatile and commonly used in everyday communication.  In other words, core vocabulary is the set of the most frequently used words in our language.

An example of core words that can be used across setting are the words: think, can, and do. If we look at these words, they can be used often in many different settings. It does not matter if the student is in art, music, math, or reading. They may use all of these words in each place!

By focusing on core vocabulary words instead of more specific words (that are fringe words), educators can provide students with a robust foundation for expressing their wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. The leads to improved communication skills and increased participation in social interactions. Which promotes inclusion and acceptance with their peers.  

Without the teaching of core vocabulary, we run the risk of isolating AAC users to only those who know them and their needs well. This could also lead to mental health concerns due to the inability to connect with others.  Core vocabulary is such an essential part of a nonverbal students’ education.

So what is fringe vocabulary?

Although not the focus of this blog, we need to touch on fringe just so you know what it is. These are words that are specific to an area or activity.

You can have fringe boards for certain holidays, one for art and another for music, one for colors, and one for the specific story you are reading. These words are not used as frequently as core and that is why they are not the focus (although still important).

Why is core vocabulary important for special education teachers?

So often when we have students who use an AAC system, their instruction of how to use this falls directly on the shoulders of the speech-language pathologists.  However, to have students use their devices with intention and as functionally as possible- they need to be using their devices across all settings and not just in the speech room.

This means, the special education teacher needs to add learning how to teach core vocabulary to her ever growing list of skills.

But this does not have to be very challenging and can be seamlessly added to your lesson plans with just a little but of thought and planning. I am going to give you some great ways to easily start incorporating this inside this blog post, so stick with me.

Also, this concept of core vocabulary is not just for those in a self contained classroom. Yes, in many places students who use AAC are in self contained. However, in the hopes to move into a more inclusive environment, we can teach about core vocabulary in an inclusive type of setting as well. 

How do you start using & planning for core vocabulary instruction?

The last thing we want is teachers to be more overwhelmed by the task of core vocabulary, start off strong and then just fizzle out. Because that can totally happen- but with a plan and a little support from me I promise this will not seem overwhelming.

Core Word of the Week

Many approaches take a core word of the week. So what does this mean? It means the entire team (gen ed, sped, speech language therapist, occupational therapist- everyone on the team) will focus on one word.  Now this is an amazing goal.

BUT if you are just starting out, it can be a lot to simply prep the materials needed for this one word a week. So have the goal of using one word a week, but then take steps to get there.  Here are a couple of ways to start out:

  • Start by only doing a word every other week. This gives you more time and flexibility when you are first starting out. If your student understands and starts using the targeted core word immediately, jump down to the section “how to teach core vocabulary” for ways to make it more challenging and develop more skills without having to make more resources.
  • Choose a word to focus on and just be more aware of using it– but don’t get all the adapted materials if you do not have time. The most important part is engaging and using the students’ assistive technology.
    • This could look like focusing on the word ‘go’. You could model it when you are about to leave for lunch and say, “It is time to go to lunch” while pointing to the word ‘go’ on the student’s device or on a core board of your own. Then you could have the physical therapist focus on this word during their therapy and when they want to go on the swing, they model the word ‘go.’ Then when it is time to go home, the teaching assistant models that it is time to ‘go’ home and they need to ‘go’ pack up. And then you know during speech therapy they will work on this word in all sorts of ways!
    • Already there are four easy examples of using the word go on the student’s device without having to make adapted books or visuals. Of course using visuals will always always be a powerful tool with our learners, but these tips are meant to help you jump start core vocabulary instruction if you have limited time.
  • Create a few materials each week. Make adapted books that focus on the key word of the week. Make sure they are laminated, so you can use them year after year OR month after month. If you have students that need you to consistently be going back and reteaching- use the materials you already have prepped just for that. You can get a whole year of adapted books in a digital download here, so you don’t have to spend any additional time searching the internet for them!

How to Teach Core Vocabulary

Modeling is the end all be all way to teach core vocabulary. Whether you have a learner who is advanced or just starting out with their aac device. Think about a typically developing child. Between the age of 0-1 they are exposed to thousands and thousands of words orally. These are all models of how to use their language.  

We do not expect kids to even say one single word before they are one year old, after an entire year of having language skills modeled for them. This is so important to remember when we now give a neurodiverse student some type of AAC device and expect them to start using it immediately. 

When we are teaching students to use their alternative communication, we have to model it for them so it shows them how it works, that other people also understand what they mean when they use it, and to show them that their communication is just like verbal students, just a little bit different.

The most important thing to know about modeling is to model without expectation.

This means, don’t ask the student to touch their device. Just show them how to use it and keep moving on.  

If students are easily picking up the core words you are teaching, be sure to model one level above where they are at. So, if they are only using one word at a time, try to model two words and so on. For more on how to do that, read this blog post.

Model Using Large Core Word Boards

A great way to model for all students is to use large core boards. Depending on your school, you can possibly have them printed there or you can have them printed at Staples! I personally had my school print it from here. Then I stapled it to a foam board so it was sturdy and I could also move it. I moved it to the small group area, the whole group area, and speech would take it with them sometimes too!

It was a great way to model when I was teaching. I would read a story, and every time the focus word of the week came up, I would simply point to it. I did not make a huge deal out of it. It was a good way to show all students, not just the special education students, how to use these supports.

We would using them during song time too. I would have to do a little planning to be sure I knew what words were coming in the song, but I would give myself grace. For example, a student loved the movie Frozen. The focus word of the week was open. So what did we do? Played “Love is an Open Door” throughout the week while pointing to the word ‘open.’ All students loved it and it was one of many different ways we could include all students as well as make lessons inclusive.

You want to be sure you are modeling using these words with their different communication functions. 

Model Using Adapted Books

Adapted books are often seen in a special needs classroom, but really they are an important aspect of any classroom. So using them for core vocabulary is just another learning material you can use with your aac learners. 

There are many options of adapted books out there, but my favorite are ones that target a specific word and use the picture icons that match the students’ device. Now, these adapted books are editable to do just that. You download them, drag and drop the image (that can be easily googled) that is specific to your student. 

Now use these in reading groups, bring them to a speech session, let them practice with other staff members- use them over and over! Remember, this is going to be their functional vocabulary so it is okay to practice these books many times.

Start out by modeling reading the adapted book and each time you come to the target word, touch the device. Remember to never request the learner to touch the device. You want to model without expectation.

Model Using Worksheets

So you have a laundry list of state standards to get through as well as IEP goals- maybe you do not have a ton of time for specific core vocabulary lessons. Totally understandable! You can embed them into different lessons.

These worksheets are a great tool, again especially when you are short on time. You can just print and go. Within these worksheets you are going to be able to practice writing the core vocabulary words, sorting, matching, and the list goes on.  You can target specific skills and use the core vocabulary word- it is a win win.

Model Using Boom Cards

If you haven’t gotten on the Boom Card wagon yet- I am here to tell you to come aboard! Boom Cards are such powerful tools that are not only fun for the students, there is almost no prep for you! All you will have to do it make sure that you assign the correct deck to the student for the week. You can even put in older words that you worked on previously to be sure that students do not forget to use those words too.

If you have the target word up for the week, you can assign them this Boom Card deck. Then, they can practice with their AAC device next to the device they are using the Boom Cards (you should never do these on their AAC device as their AAC device should be solely dedicated to communication purposes). These are adapted books, but digital!

Students have fun with these and another bonus is they are errorless. Having errorless materials in your instructional materials helps students feel confident, reduces escape maintained behavior, and help students learn new skills quickly.

Using Core Vocabulary Across Various setting

As we said before, it is important to use core vocabulary across settings. That means in the special education classroom, in the general education classroom, in occupational therapy, and anywhere language is used- which is everywhere!

So how do you go about getting everyone to know about core vocabulary?

  • Have a meeting at the beginning of the year. Explain the approach you are trying for your student. The beginning of the year is the perfect time to get everyone on board.
  • Send out a weekly email with the key word and some ideas on how to use it. I also send a visual they can print and use to help them target. 
  • Give everyone a low tech version of the core vocabulary boards. You can get that here.
  • Use a core vocabulary word wall. If you have the core words that you have been teaching up on your wall- you are going to catch other people’s attention. This can show other educators how important core vocabulary is and encourage them to use it as well. Many people just do not know about core vocabulary and were never taught it. Once they learn, they are more apt to be on board with this instruction.

There is so much to learn and understand core vocabulary. Although this is a good start I do not want to leave you hanging. Here are a few more places you can learn about  core vocabulary.

Places to get supports for teaching core vocabulary:

  • Adapted Books: Editable resources to make learner specific materials
  • Worksheets: Printable worksheets that can tie to the core word you are using as well as tie to ELA skills
  • Boom Cards: Easy, no prep tool that students find fun and engaging while working on specific core vocabulary.

In conclusion, understanding and implementing core vocabulary is crucial for special education teachers in supporting their students’ communication development. Core vocabulary provides a foundation for effective communication, empowering students to express themselves across various contexts and activities. 

By focusing on core vocabulary, teachers can create meaningful communication opportunities, support language development, and enhance students’ overall academic and social success. Therefore, it is essential for special education teachers to embrace core vocabulary as a fundamental tool, ensuring that every student has the opportunity to communicate effectively and participate fully in their learning journey.

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