Step 3: Select Appropriate Vocabulary


The next step is to select appropriate vocabulary for your child, including:

  • words such as mommy, daddy, more, milk, up, tickle 
  • short phrases such as "what’s that?", "all gone!", "fall down."
  • sound effects such as giggling; "raspberries"; vehicle noises associated with cars, airplanes or trains; or music

For each context chosen for intervention, select appropriate vocabulary (that is, words or sentences), or sound effects, to expand your child’s communication.

How do I select appropriate vocabulary for my child?

Watch and listen to your child throughout the day, especially within the contexts chosen for intervention.

  • Make a list of the things that your child wants to communicate.
    • Focus especially on those things that your child cannot currently communicate effectively.
      • For example, words that he or she cannot say
    • Watch for opportunities to connect and be playful.

Watch and listen to other children when they are playing, especially in the contexts chosen for intervention.

  • Make a list of the words that they say.
    • Focus especially on interesting and fun things that your child cannot currently communicate effectively.
  • Talk to others who spend time with your child to see if they have ideas.

Review vocabulary lists or questionnaires for more ideas.

  • Click here for a questionnaire to help you select vocabulary for your child. This questionnaire was designed by Karen Fallon, Janice Light and Tara Kramer Paige to help parents, speech-language pathologists, and teachers identify the most important and meaningful vocabulary for young children. 

 

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Watch and listen to other children at play:  KW plays bubbles

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What type of vocabulary is appropriate?

Choose vocabulary that is:

  • Motivating and fun
  • Functional
  • Appropriate to your child’s development, culture, and personality

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Why is it important to choose vocabulary that is motivating and fun?

Children will be most likely to communicate if they have access to vocabulary that is fun and interesting to them.

Remember to think about the kinds of things that young kids say.

  • Too often parents and professionals select vocabulary that is of interest to them but not necessarily to their child.
    • For example, words like "shirt, toilet, sit," or "nap," may not be highly motivating for your child.
  • Instead think about the kinds of things that young kids love to communicate.
    • For example, sound effects like car or airplane noises (beeping, vroom, crashing sounds), animal sounds, burping, "raspberries"
    • giggling, laughing, squealing, crying
    • singing and music
    • silly words like "uh oh, oh no, yucky, stinky, icky, oops, whoops, goober, awesome, wow, yay," or "hey"
       

Example of vocabulary that is motivating.

In this video, Genevieve is 18 months old.  She has Down syndrome.  She has a wonderful sense of humor and loves to play games.

  • In this clip, Genevieve has just finished playing the "upside-down game" with Janice.  This is a play activity where she stands up, bends over, and looks out between her legs.
    • When the video begins, Genevieve finds the visual scene display (VSD) on the computer for playing the "upside-down game".
    • As soon as she sees the VSD of the "upside-down game," she asks Janice, "What's that?"
    • Janice labels the game for Genevieve and then models for her how to comment, "That's funny," by selecting the hotspot of the child who is laughing.  Janice also shows her the sign for "funny".
    • Genevieve quickly learns how to comment, "That's funny," and repeats the comment several times.  She touches the hotspot of the child laughing on the computer display and retrieves the speech output, "That's funny," and the sound of a child giggling.  Each time she does so, she giggles herself.
      • Genevieve is clearly motivated to communicate when she has the vocabulary available to play silly games, to giggle, and to make funny comments.  This is a powerful way for Genevieve to acquire new words and learn that communication is fun.

 

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Why is it important to choose vocabulary that is functional?

Children will be most apt to communicate if they have access to functional vocabulary, in other words, if they have vocabulary that allows them to do the things they want to do.

  • For example, young children need vocabulary to interact with family and friends:
    • words to allow them to play fun games
  • They need words to ask for things that they enjoy:
    • toys and games
    • favorite books and TV shows
  • They need to call attention to things or events:
    • "Look!"
    • "Watch me!"
  • As they grow older they need vocabulary to help them learn: 
    • question words like "what’s that?, why?" and "how?"
    • numbers, letter sounds, colors
  • They need words to allow them to talk about their experiences and tell stories:
    • people they know
    • words for describing, comparing, and contrasting
    • activities they like to do
    • places they like to go
       

Here is an example of what is meant by choosing vocabulary that is "functional":

In this clip, Gareth is using a simple SGD to ask, "What's that?" while reading a book about cars and trucks.

  • Gareth is 28 months old in this video.  He has cerebral palsy.
  • He loves cars and trucks, and he loves to read books. 
  • In this video, Gareth is reading a book about vehicles with his mom and Janice.  He has a high motivation for this activity!
    • He is using a simple SGD to ask, "What's that?" to find out the name of one of the construction trucks -- a wheeled excavator.
    • Having the vocabulary to ask questions like, "What's that?" gives Gareth a powerful way to learn new words and concepts.
    • It also empowers him with a way to alert others to his interests, and get new vocabulary added to his communication book or his SGD.
      • When he asks about something, his parents check to see if he wants to add the new word or concept to his AAC systems.

 

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Why is it important to choose vocabulary that is appropriate to my child’s development?

Choose vocabulary that fits your child’s:

  • developmental level
  • cultural background
  • personality


Choose vocabulary that fits your child’s development:

  • Kids should sound like kids.
    • Kids use different words than adults do.
    • Kids use different sentence structures than adults do.
      • often single words, as well as short phrases and sentences
  • Introduce vocabulary that kids would use.


Choose vocabulary that fits your child’s culture.

  • Children with special needs come from rich and varied cultural backgrounds.
    • Their culture is an important part of who they are.
  • Introduce vocabulary that includes important aspects of your culture.
    • For example, include appropriate foods and celebrations.
  • Use representations that are appropriate to your culture.
    • For example, make sure that the people depicted in AAC symbols have skin color, facial features, and clothing that are appropriate to your child's experiences.

Choose vocabulary that fits your child’s personality.

  • Each child has a unique personality to express.
    • For example, some children are serious, others have a silly sense of humor.
  • Introduce vocabulary that allows your child to express his or her unique personality.
     

 Emma enjoys playing bubbles with her mom and Janice.

EM enjoys playing bubbles with Janice.

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How do I introduce vocabulary to my child?

Children learn new words by seeing and hearing parents, teachers, and others use those words around them in their daily lives.

Children with special needs require lots of opportunities to see and hear parents, teachers, and others using new vocabulary in meaningful situations in their daily lives.

  • When you play, read books, or complete daily activities with your child, use the new vocabulary  
    • Say and sign the words at the same time, or
    • Say the words and show the representations on a communication board or book, or
    • Say the words and select the representations on the computer or SGD

Here is an example of introducing new vocabulary (in this case, with an infant):

In this video, Genevieve is 9 months old.  She is learning her "first word."

  • Genevieve, her family, and Janice are reading the book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear.
    • Genevieve loves the page with the yellow duck.
      • She touches the picture of the duck on the computer screen to activate the speech output, "duck," and the sound effect of a quacking sound. 
      • She is learning the sign for "duck," as well.
  •  Genevieve's mom, her sisters, and Janice provide her with lots of models.
    • They say the word, "duck," and show her the sign.
    • They show her how to select the picture of the duck from the computer screen to say the word, "duck."
    • They give her lots of opportunities to learn this new word in a meaningful and motivating context.

 

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How often should I introduce new vocabulary?

As children develop, they learn new vocabulary rapidly.

  • They may learn as many as 5 new words a day!


Children with complex communication needs can only learn new words if parents, teachers, and others introduce new vocabulary regularly as they play and interact each day. 

Here are some ways that you can help your child learn new vocabulary:

  • Be sure to give your child the vocabulary to ask questions like, "What's that?" or "Why?"
    • Having this vocabulary provides children with a powerful way to let you know what new words they want to learn.
    • When your child asks about something, show him or her the sign or add a symbol for the new word or concept to his or her AAC system.
  • Learn new signs.
    • If you only sign the words that your child already knows, he or she has no opportunity to learn new words/signs.
    • Regularly learn new signs and use them with your child.
    • Check to see if the early intervention center or local parent center has sign language resources available.  Some may offer book and/or video libraries or classes to parents for sign language or baby signs.
  • Add new symbols /representations to your child’s communication board, book or PECS.
    • If you do not add new concepts your child has no way to learn new words.
    • Add new words to your child’s communication board or book regularly – every week!
  • Program new vocabulary into your child’s assistive technology / SGD.
    • If you do not add new concepts your child has no way to learn new words.
    • Add new words to your child’s computer regularly – every week!
    • As you continue to add contexts to your child's communication system, you will also be adding new vocabulary.
    • Watch your child's use of his or her system carefully -- he or she may be giving you clues for new vocabulary when exploring parts of the VSDs that don't currently have hotspots!

Here is an example of introducing new vocabulary regularly, as the opportunity arises:

In this video, Lili is 32 months old.  She has Down syndrome.  Lili, her mom, and Janice are reading a personalized book about Lili's weekly activities.

  • Janice starts by reading out loud the title of the book, "Lili's Week."  Janice signs as she says each word in the title.
  • Lili shows an interest in the word, "week" -- a new word in her vocabulary.
  • Lili says the word and signs it for her mom.  At first, her sign and speech are approximations but Lili's mom and Janice can easily understand her in context.  
    • As she uses this new word over time and has more opportunities to practice it, she will be able to say and sign it more clearly.
  • Lili's mom and Janice say and sign the word "week" again for her.
  • They give her lots of opportunities to learn this new word as the opportunity arises in a meaningful and motivating context.
 
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Last Updated: August 31, 2012