The Oral Core Vocabulary of Typically Developing English-Speaking School-Aged Children: Implications for AAC Practice (summary)



The selection of appropriate vocabulary for AAC systems can be challenging for professionals working with people who use AAC (PWUAAC). Typically they rely on a range of sources to help select vocabulary, one of these is core vocabulary lists, which are generated from research into the frequency of words used by typically developing individuals of similar age to the AAC user.

Core vocabulary includes a variety of word classes e.g. pronouns, verbs, prepositions, question words, nouns etc. Whilst fringe vocabulary is vocabulary that is more specific to particular topics or events.

Core vocabulary is potentially useful to PWUAAC because it is relatively small in size, shows little variation between people and locations, can be used to combine words and generate new utterances and allows for consistency of positioning on AAC systems or devices which, in turn, can lead to improved fluency of use.

Core vocabularies have been developed for speaking people in a side variety of populations and situations. In most of these between 200 and 300 words account for 75-80% of the total vocabulary used.

For school-age children who use AAC the vocabulary provided needs to meet multiple needs; interaction with family and friends, classroom participation, language and literacy development and academic achievement.

Some research has found a significant overlap between the vocabulary used in the spoken and written language of typically developing English speaking children.

This study aimed to identify the words that typically developing English speaking school-age children, including those for whom English is a second language, use most frequently in a variety of school activities.

What did the authors do?

Thirty typically developing children aged from 7 to 14 years took part in the study. Eight of them spoke English as a second language (ESL).

Data was collected by recording the children during school activities and the recordings were transcribed. The language samples were analysed and the words used allocated to different classes.

What did they find?

A small core vocabulary of 100 to 200 words accounted for 75-85%of the vocabulary used for both native English and ESL speakers with great overlap in the most commonly used words in both groups.

The number of content words or 'fringe' vocabulary; nouns, adjectives and verbs, increased between the top 100 and 300 words used by each group in contrast with the percentage of function (core) words which reduced between the top 100 and 300 words. This can be explained by the fact that most function words belong to closed word classes which have a relatively small number of frequently used items.


The sample size was small, with a broad age range, and the data collection did not take place over specific activities. Further research, in narrower age groups and specific academic versus non-academic activities, is indicated.

The vocabulary used might have been influenced by the participants knowing they were being recorded and being aware of the microphones, recorders etc. The top 200 words used reflected the times the recordings were made e.g. lunchtimes and specific lessons.

Further research is needed to compare the oral core vocabulary of typically developing children with that of children with disabilities.


The results of this study supported other researcher's findings that a large proportion of total words used is made up of a small set of words.

Though function words form the largest part of a core vocabulary they need to be combined with other content words to form meaningful utterances. Core vocabulary is essential for language learning but would not be enough to meet the needs of typical school activities. Vocabulary is needed to reflect individual interests, personalities and contexts of interaction. Therefore individually relevant fringe vocabulary needs to be included in vocabulary selected for AAC devices. The authors note that the teaching of function words needs a different approach to that of teaching content words, involving planning of multiple opportunities for children to hear and use the vocabulary throughout the day.

Things you may want to look into:

Teaching Conceptually Referenced Core Vocabulary for Initial Augmentative and Alternative Communication

Social Validation of Vocabulary Selection: Ensuring Stakeholder Relevance

Added to site May 2015