The Vocabulary of Beginning Writers: Implications for Children with Complex Communication Needs (summary)



This study explored vocabulary used in typical written language development and whether knowledge about this could be applied to developing vocabulary sets for children with complex communication needs (CCN).

Several papers have been published that investigated the spoken vocabulary of typically developing children but there is limited research into vocabulary used in developing writing. The authors suggest that issues facing children as they develop writing skills are similar to those facing children who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), so understanding written language development might be relevant to work with children with CCN.

Most studies of the written vocabulary used by typically developing children were undertaken some time ago and the teaching of writing and expectations of children have changed. Most of these studies do not include children with very little time in school and it is this group’s written language that will be most relevant to children with CCN. In addition previous studies have not generally collected information about self-selected writing topics and have not compared the written language of children in different countries.  

Understanding of the way typically developing children acquire different language forms and the types and numbers of words used at different developmental stages might be useful in deciding what vocabulary should be included in AAC systems. It has been suggested that a limited set of words are used as a significant proportion of spoken and written language used by typically developing children and that this ‘core’ vocabulary can be used when determining some vocabulary choices available to AAC users, though it will not meet all of their needs. It is also the case that core vocabulary might vary between different groups of children, particularly in different countries, even when they speak the same language. There are, for example, vocabulary differences between United States and New Zealand English.

What did they do?

The study aimed to address the question: Are there school age and country-related differences in the vocabulary words used by typically developing beginning writers who reside in the United States and New Zealand when they compose about self-selected topics, and if so, what are these differences?

113 young school age children from New Zealand and 125 from USA were involved in the study. They were grouped by ‘school age’ i.e. the length of time they had been attending school. This took into account differing school starting ages between the two countries. A total of 30 teachers took part in the study.

The teachers were asked to give the children opportunities to write about self-selected topics at least three times a week over a six week period. The writing was without prompts, topic suggestions or other guidance. All of the samples were copied and analysed.

What did they find?

The number of samples produced by each child reduced as school age increased, some children produced a different sample each day, and others worked on the same piece over several days, adding to what they had written previously.

The vocabulary used was analysed to provide information on word frequency, total number of words used and total number of different words. The occurrence of multiword sequences was also analysed.

The samples generated a total of 85759 words including 5724 different words. The average number of words produced per writing session increased with school age. There was also an increase in the variety of content with increases in the amount of time in school.

The total number of words and total of different words were broadly similar between USA and New Zealand in the three younger age groups. In the oldest school age group the children in New Zealand produced more words and different words from those in the USA.

163 words made up 70% of total words used and 39 words accounted for 50% of the total. Many of these were grammatical words.

Seven of the top ten words were the same across all age groups. Nine of the top ten and 15 of the top 20 were the same in both countries though with some differences in their rankings. There were some differences when the school ages in the two countries were considered separately.

There were significant differences in the use of multiword sequences, with the children in USA using more two word sequences than those in New Zealand. The types of sequences were different between the two countries when all school ages were combined, 9 of the two word sequences  and 16 of the three word sequences in the USA top 25 did not occur in the New Zealand top 25.


As has been previously suggested this study found that a small core vocabulary makes up a large proportion of written language produced by young, typically developing children.

This has implications for helping children with CCN develop effective writing skills, perhaps by focussing on teaching some of these words in reading and spelling lessons and giving fast access to them so children can focus on generating less frequently occurring words.

The authors also suggest that core vocabularies that change over time are important to AAC users and that providing some multiword sequences as whole units might be useful, though these would need to vary between countries.

There are some differences in the high frequency vocabulary used in different countries and fringe vocabulary is often different, so modifications to standard vocabulary packages will need to be made between countries.

Overall this paper stresses the need to consider a child’s school age and country when making decisions about AAC systems.


The contextual influences on the children’s writing was not considered in this study so it is not appropriate generalise the findings widely.

The differences between the two countries methods of teaching could have influenced what was written but this was not investigated.

The small sample size, particularly in one school age group in New Zealand is likely to have distorted the findings about three word sequences.

The fact that some children produced one piece of writing at each time of sampling and others returned to the same piece several times is only partially accounted for in the data analysis.

1.2% of the total number of written words were considered unintelligible and so were excluded from the overall analysis.

Things you may want to look into:

An Analysis of Reading and Spelling Abilities of Children Using AAC: Understanding a Continuum of Competence

Teaching Sound Letter Correspondence and Consonant-Vowel-Consonant Combinations to Young Children who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication

Evidence-based literacy instruction for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: a case study of a student with multiple disabilities

Core vocabulary in written personal narratives of school-age children

 Added to site December 16