Photo of an iPad symbol system saying 'what to do' sitting on a page of core symbols.

AAC – A Core Word Approach

Teaching an AAC (Augmentative Alternative Communication) system to our students who require support to communicate, is essential. As October is AAC Awareness month, I thought I would share some ideas to implement a core word approach.

Have an AAC Plan

Having a plan when it comes to implementing AAC is important. It ensures that all team members can support the student(s) with consistency and focus. It also holds people accountable so robust teaching and learning is more likely to take place. If you work closely with speech pathologists, they along with the family, will be key team members during this planning stage. However, the following may support you in the process if you are not lucky enough to work consistently with a range of therapists.

Decide What core words to Teach

Select words from a research driven core word list. An appropriate one to start with is Dynamic Learning Maps, First 40 core words. This list of 100 words by AAC Language Labs is another great choice. Alternatively, access to a greater number of core words divided into months, can be found in the e-toolbox resource section on the fabulous PrAACtical AAC website.

Some of the software companies who produce the apps for high tech systems, have great suggestions for what and how to teach. One such company is Assistiveware, another is Tobii Dynavox and AAC Language Labs also has great support. Remember that the strategies discussed on these sites can be used with most systems, high or low tech.

This year I considered my theme for each term and chose my shared reading books. I then looked at the core word list and selected a focus word, ensuring to choose a variety of functions. Lastly I planned how I will teach the core language in a variety of contexts.

If teaching core words or utilising AAC systems is new to you, try teaching one core word a week, in only one or two routine areas to begin with. As you grow more confident, introduce more contexts. Remember that we are introducing a new core word but we continue to model the words taught in previous weeks too.

AAC Plan: When and Where

Think about when and where you will teach on the A.A.C. system. Some contexts to consider are: circle time; morning message; writing times particularly predictable chart writing; cooking; inside and outside play; shared reading; personal care; community; eating and transitions such as arrival and dismissal. Some ideas to include on the plan are: the core word; context; function; the system to be used and strategies when teaching.

Here is a format of what a plan could look like for one context when choosing one word a week.

Week One Term 3

WordContextFunctionAAC SystemStrategies

core board
lge & sml
core board
*Expectant pause
*least to
most prompt

If you choose to implement a group of words from the start of each month (or term), you would record them all in the left column. From there, determine which context could be best suited to which words.

An overall weekly class plan can be more general. What is included may depend on the experience of your team. However, each student will still require their own individualised AAC plan with relevant IEP goals attached. Assessment will also need to be considered. What are you going to assess and how? A future blog post will consider this in more detail.

Action the Plan

If a student is not spontaneously accessing symbols, I would say a few words, but only point to one symbol. For example, I might say ” put it on” but only point to the ‘on’ symbol. If your student communicates at a one symbol level, I would model two symbols. Using the example above I would say “put it on” and I would point to ‘put on’. In other words, model one more word than your student currently communicates.

Brainstorm with your team, some ideas of one, two and three word sequences that could be used in different contexts when teaching the core words. Again, dependent on the experience of your team, you may wish to only list a couple of examples.

Inside Play example – one word a week- focus ‘on’

1 word2 words3 words
onput on
want on
yellow on
on there
not on
put it on
want it on
yellow on there
not on there
not put on

Inside Play example – focus – group of words

1 word2 words3 words

put on
it on
it go
want go
not go
not want
put it on
want it on
want it go
it not go
not put on
not want it

The same format would be used for each context you decide to focus the teaching of the words.

HINT: Printing an example of where to locate symbols on various AAC systems, including their pathways, can support staff.

Many software companies provide symbols to download on their websites for single classroom/student use. PrAACtical AAC also have a range symbols listed in the e-toolbox resource section, to support the monthly core ideas. You may already have access to Boardmaker, Smarty Symbols, Symbol Stix or other products you could utilise to make your pathways. Alternatively load a photo on your computer and ‘snip’ symbols required for your class.

Inform all extended team members about the AAC Focus Word

It is essential that all team members know what the word (or words) of the week are. I have a poster documenting the weekly core focus both inside and outside the classroom. Inside it acts as a cue for staff and outside it informs any person entering the room. This supports us to generalise the modelling/teaching. I typically write the word(s) and circle directly on the class core boards displayed. It is, however, up to us as teachers, to ensure that we have shown staff where to locate the symbol on each system along with the prompts required.

I send home information to parents at the beginning of term about what the weekly focus will be. Then, I remind them in the weekly email whilst making suggestions for use in their home and in the community. Of course the weekly core word is a focus word but, we still model a range of functions and words throughout the day.

Always have the AAC systems available and accessible

If the AAC system is not available, the students can’t communicate, and we can’t model. My team put our core boards on as soon as we arrive and they stay on all day. Extra core boards are placed in various contexts throughout the class and school.

I project a large core version up on my Interactive White Board and use during shared reading time or I use an enlarged tear proof core.

HINT: High tech devices tend to run out of power at the worst possible time. Having a low tech version is important.

One solution is to take a screen shot of the home page and print it off. Another option is to check out freely available ones to download online.  PrAACtical AAC have a collection of boards available to download as do most AAC software companies, for their specific program. Add a strap to the low tech core boards and your good to go. Lastly remember to model through out the day on each different AAC system your students are using.

Final Thoughts

The key to success is to plan fun, engaging activities for the students and model, model, model! Inviting interaction and less questioning, is what we are after. Further reading about strategies and implementation can be found here on the Assistiveware site and a very detailed example from Gail Tatenhove here.

I hope this has offered you a starting point or added to your knowledge when implementing AAC. Feel free to take a look around my site. I have further ideas when teaching core words and some free adapted core word books you might like. My AAC board is free to download here and the accompanying word of the week notice I use can be found here. I also have included an in depth, but easy to follow, webinar on this topic by Laura Kessel. Click on the link below.

‘AAC Implementation Plans: Preparing for Successful Communication; by Laura Kessel for the Center on Technology and Disability Webinar, Dec 5, 2017’

Communication is a right! Have fun and get your core on. Your students deserve nothing less.

Aroha, Ann

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