“You can say anything you want with core vocabulary except for core and vocabulary” –Unknown
As many of you will recall, I attended ASHA’s 2016 convention in Philadelphia. There were a lot of great presentations to cover over the course of that long weekend in November, but a talk given by Lori Frost of Pyramid Educational Consultants (PEC) was foremost on my mind. Its title was Current Trends in AAC Vocabulary Selection: Is Core Enough? This talk was to outline the need to be mindful of vocabulary selection for students on the autism spectrum requiring AAC. My interest in this presentation stemmed in large part from a video released by PEC on YouTube. In it, Dr. McCleery, a consultant for PEC, discussed the misapplication of core research on teaching children with ASD to communicate.
I’m confident that those of you working in the field of AAC are very familiar with the confusion and occasional tension between practitioners advocating PECS and those advocating core vocabulary. After all, you don’t have to look far to find the influence core vocabulary has had over the past 5 years or so. My own program, in fact, adopted core around 2011 and the response has been mostly positive. It’s also easier than ever to get a student started on high tech given the rise of tablets. That PECS would eventually respond to the rise of core is not, therefore, surprising.
So how does PECS reconcile with the movement to teach core? In a nutshell, the takeaway from both Lori’s talk and Dr. McCleery’s video is that the idea of introducing core at the beginning of a child’s developmental trajectory is misguided. The data from which core proponents derive their prescriptive findings are chiefly taken from children in the complex grammatical stage of development (i.e., when children begin to form sentences). This doesn’t happen until a lexicon of roughly 400 words is learned (I’m citing only the video here).
McCleery describes three coarse stages of language development. These include the first words stage (50 words), the word-word stage (400 words), and the aforementioned complex grammatical functions stage (400+ words). The first words stage is key, as it is comprised of content words such as nouns and verbs (I’ll return to this point later).
McCleery presents the following slide:
The list he cites above includes the most frequently used words (core) taken from the youngest client samples in a Banajee et al. study. McCleery indicates that the majority of core vocabulary produced from this cohort are grammatical function words. He next references a study by Bates et al. that suggests the majority of early language development is comprised of content words, not grammatical function words. The gist is that we (core vocabulary proponents) are spending time teaching grammatical function words to beginning communicators instead of content words. It’s not hard to imagine someone who is unfamiliar with core vocabulary snickering at the thought of teaching the word “the” or “on” as an initial set of words to an individual with a developmental disability. But in reality, is that what most of us are doing?
I agree with the basic premise of McCleery’s and Frost’s argument. We need to be mindful of which words we are teaching our kids. We need to integrate vocabulary in a thoughtful manner that best suits the learner’s ability to internalize and generalize a given set of words.
That being said, I recommend that you consider the following after listening to McCleery’s video:
- There are many lenses in which to view language, and how we label vocabulary can easily obscure what the focus should truly be. Take the word “mine,” for example. Yes, “mine” can be seen as a grammatical function word, as McCleery notes. But “mine” also happens to be a pronoun and a modifier. The point is, the categorization of words into broad classes isn’t the only heuristic by which to examine their comparative values. It doesn’t take a speech pathologist to realize that “mine” is far more valuable than “here,” both in frequency of use and the obvious function “mine” serves. “Mine” is likely not going to be a first word or even among the first 50 words for many children. However, when compared to other core words we could teach, a case for “mine” is not hard to make.
- Speaking of lenses, you might want to check out this post by The Speech Dudes on keywords.
- I don’t think anyone in the core camp is (or has ever) suggested throwing out fringe vocabulary. Anyone who is so wedded to the idea of core as to ignore any and all fringe certainly doesn’t get it.
- If we’re being honest, most of us core proponents spend an excessive amount of time teaching verbs than other word classes (at least I do). This is because verbs are the gateway to sentences. By the way, remember that verbs happen to fall under content words, which McCleery rightly points out make up first words.
- Let me present a fictional character I’ll call “Alex”. Alex is a five-year-old boy on the autism spectrum who might be defined as “minimally verbal.” Alex sometimes requests using unconventional means, such as pulling the hand of another to a desired object or outcome. When he wants something, Alex will sometimes state the object’s name to an adult who is close by without providing eye contact. During snack, Alex will occasionally grab at a snack out of reach or held by an adult. On other occasions, he will say, with an uprising intonation, “you want fish crackers.” Joint attention is fleeting; however, when movement is involved, Alex becomes more engaged, laughs, and exchanges eye contact with others. Alex has demonstrated the ability to point to at least 100 items from the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (given informally). Rarely will Alex spontaneously name objects, and most of the sparse language he produces is comprised of gestalts (e.g., “back off mister! Look it!”).
- I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: core vocabulary is not and has never been a “thing” the way PECS is. To say one uses core vocabulary says nothing about what words are being taught and, more importantly, how they are being taught. Though many of us using core vocabulary cite the work of Meher Banajee, it doesn’t mean she directs some type of curriculum. Indeed, it is possible to have two students with similar profiles using the same exact speech-generating devices and yet have two very different prompting styles thrust upon them. Things can get very interesting, however, if we allow ourselves to think creatively. It is possible to marry the best features of PECS with core vocabulary. If you haven’t already, check out my friend Megan Brazas’ work with the Core Vocabulary Exchange System (CVES).
In this situation (which I’ve encountered many times), it is hard to predict or efficiently navigate the exact path the student will take to generative language. Communication is a messy process, and clearly, this student is not taking the typical route to morphosyntax development. So would teaching a bunch of fringe words to the exclusion of core, phrasal verbs, or other useful gestalts really be the best use of time? Is it an argument even worth having?
While I am thankful to both McCleery and Frost for pointing out the importance of choosing our vocabulary carefully, I believe their argument was a bit reaching in its assumptions. Furthermore, I was disheartened to see the following on a slide during Frost’s presentation:
- Presume Communicative Competence?
– Anne Donnellan (Donnellan, A. M. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption, Behavioral Disorders, 141-150.)
- Strategies that presume competence
– Aided Language Input
While I can’t remember exactly what was said while this slide was posted, I do remember feeling upset that there was likely going to be a priming effect (intended or unintended) by merely placing the words “Minspeak” and “aided language input” on the same slide as “facilitated communication.” Less seasoned or beginning clinicians might incorrectly infer that core vocabulary is not a worthwhile idea or, heaven forbid, a pseudoscience. I hope this is not the case and that I’m simply overreacting. Straying a bit further from the topic at hand, what worries me more is how much tribalism exists in the discussion of autism today. Seriously, how many PECS fans do you know who also see the beauty in core? It’s probably less than the number of people who saw the movie “Gigli.”
 Tablets should not necessarily be the default option for everyone. Please see a qualified AAC specialist.
 Banajee M, Dicarlo C, Stricklin SB. Core Vocabulary Determination for toddlers. Augment Altern Commun 2003; 19:67-73.
 Bates E, Marchman V, Thal D, et al. Developmental and stylistic variation in the composition of early vocabulary. J Child Lang 1994;21(1):85-123.
 Like the word “want,” as in the PECS phrase “I want ____”
 I don’t necessarily like using terms “minimally verbal” or “nonverbal,” but it’s the best shorthand we have right now for the broader audience.
 One could argue that it is the spontaneous initiation that’s important here, not so much the fringe vocabulary.
 I was actually surprised to see that “Gigli” grossed more than $7 million—still well short of its $50 million-plus budget.