Core vocabulary: an overview

Toddle core words from Banajee list

When I first started working with children with complex communication needs I had never heard that term "Complex Communication Needs". I am pretty sure it was already starting to be used in Australia by then, but it certainly hadn't arrived to my small town in Oregon at the time.

Nor did I know anything about core vocabulary, which is amazing because it is a pretty simple and powerful idea.

Basically a relatively small number of words (less than 300-500 depending on the researcher) accounts for over 70% (or more depending on the data collected) of what we say.   Bruce Baker used this basic linguist principle as the basis of his Minspeak language system that is used on Prentke Romich Company's devices (PRC).  He has written up nice summary of core vocabulary with some frequency lists from different researchers here.

For the linguistically geeky, there are many linguists with no interest in AAC who also have collected extensive sets of spoken and written language and counted the relative frequency.  Leech, Leyson, and Wilson did one such effort in 2001 and have shared their word frequency lists here.   They, and others, have shown that we use different words more frequently for spoken versus written language.  Further, when we are speaking conversationally different words are used more frequently than during task based communication.

Here are some of the most frequently core words in spoken English from one of Leech et al's 2001 lists of adult British English:

good, other, right, little, new, nice, big, old, different, sure, sorry, alright, long, great, able, better, local, bad, important, wrong, whole, bloody, only

eah, oh, no, yes, mm, mhm, ah, ooh, aye, aha, hello, ha, eh, dear, bye, yep, hey

of, in, to, for, on, with, at, about, from, like, by, into, as, through, over, after, off, between, against, within, round, under, without, before, across, down, past, during, up, around, regarding

I, you, it, we, they, he, she, them, one, me, who, him, something, us, her, anything, somebody, nothing, everything, everybody, anybody, yourself, someone, mine, myself, nobody, lots, themselves, everyone, anyone, ya, itself, yours, himself, none, ourselves, ours, 'em, plenty, nil, nought, herself, his,  whoever, whom, hers, yourselves, theirs

's, is, do, was, have, be, know, got, 've, are, 're, think, get, did, go, had, were, said, 'm, see, mean, going, say, been, want, come, put, has, does,  take, look, like, make, doing, done, went, give, thought, need, says, tell, being, thank, saying, 'd, getting, made, find, coming, remember, goes, came, use, having, keep, talking, looking, gone, work, let's, ask, try, let, seen, start, feel, told, comes, wanted, trying, pay, called, call, leave, took, working, left, suppose, talk, am, buy, started, read

Modal verbs:
can, would, 'll, could, will, can't, 'd, should, might, used, must, won't, may, shall, ought, need, dare

Core vocabulary in my early days:

Years before I became a speech therapist, my mates and I used to work at this really fun summer camp in my home town.  We were trained in safety and how to have fun, in supporting inclusion, and working on extended school year goals. 

Core vocabulary -- well there was no training about that.  It wasn't a hot topic.  I never heard any of the speech therapists mention it when they came through nor did it come up during my university classes.

But looking back, we were obviously modelling these short, frequently used words in our speech particularly when we simplified our language for the campers who had receptive language difficulties.

We also did a lot of keyword signing.  This wasn't explicitly taught to us either, but I saw lots of the kids, both campers and the slightly older teenage staff, using manual signs to emphasize key words they were saying.  These were mostly core words.  It just was part of the camp culture.

To this day, nearly all of the American Sign Language signs I still remember (I never learned any of the grammar of ASL only individual signs, often in a rather modified form), are those that I picked up just from being around people using them throughout camp. I must have seen these signs dozens of times a day:

  • more, stop, help, sit, stand, later, wait, please, sorry, thank you, you're welcome, eat/hungry, eat/thirsty, name, what, who, when {all are core vocabulary words}

It wasn't camp policy, but some of the camp staff had siblings who understood spoken words better when key words were signed and so we all started to do it. It slowed our speech down, everyone seemed calmer, other people interupted less frequently, and transitions went much smoother. It became second nature.  My friends from those camp days still do this today with their students and those who have become parents now do it with their children.

Everyone just picked it up -- well all of us who had the motor skills to approximated the signs. 

And the kids who had speech delays, they too used the signs and we saw them engage more, and over time we saw them talking more.

But the kids whose motor challenges made it hard for them to sign and speak, well I am sure they got a lot out of camp and all the interaction and interesting things going on, but we certainly weren't showing them ways that they could talk about camp and at camp independently. 

Looking back, I wish I could go back and change a few things.

Current tools to support expressive use of core words:
If I could go back now, I would do so many things differently.  I would have partner assisted scanning books (such as Gayle Porter's PODD system)  so that everyone could access core words... even in the pool, the sprinkler park, and while rafting.  Water was an essential part of camp and not particularly conducive to some electronic devices. I would also wanted to see books that kids could flip through and point to core words independently.

I would have had letter boards and keyboards and let kids to ask to borrow our phones to type out messages (if there had been smartphones back then!).  I was going through tons of paper each day in camp, both so that I could write and draw while I was speaking to others and so that the kids could use paper and markers to help communicate with me.  But paper and pen didn't always get the job done. 

I wonder what it would have been like if the kids who needed them would have had high tech speech generating devices that supported for core vocabulary.  There are so many interesting options now.  Each option has their trade-offs and there is no one perfect system, there are so many more options now that it is getting easier to find options (and funding) for each person.

Core vocabulary language systems
There is the Minspeak language system which has been promoting the importance of core vocabulary for decades.  Another early promoter was  Joan Bruno. Her Gateway Language system was one of the first alternatives to provide access to core vocabulary for those who didn't want to learn icon sequencing.   Other options with core-vocabulary as the centre of their design are Nancy Inman's WordPower and more recently Heidi LoStracco and Renee Collender's Speak for Yourself App.  SpeakforYourself in particular makes it easy to start with only a few words and then gradually expand the words that available while keeping the location of the words consistent.  Proloque2go also now has a core vocabulary option.  

And just to be clear, these are language systems which shouldn't be confused with the device hardware or the device's operating system.  Many of these vocabulary options are can bought for more than one devices and their exact layout tends to differ slightly between devices.

My approach to core words nowadays:

First off, I now try to remember to model, teach, and encourage the use of  core vocabulary. There are so many resources now to help me inspire me including those over at PrAACtically Speaking.

The importance of core vocabulary personally become very clear when I was doing my PhD in Italy.  All those AAC clinicians who wisely taught me over the years that you can use a few core words to get to a very specific, less frequently used word (also know as fringe vocabulary) by simply using core words describe fringe word.  This proved so true on so many occasions in Italy for me.

I used this core-to-fringe strategy on a daily basis. For example, I don't think I have ever actually said the Italian word for broom, but strangely it comes up more than you realize. Instead this is how my strategy evolved:

  • Before I knew the word floor, I would say "Where is the the thing to clean this thing [pointing to the floor]"  or,
  • "What do you call the tall, skinny thing that you use like this [gesturing a sweeping motion] to clean your floor?"
  • And before any of this, I had learned the hard way that the word "sweep" also has a secondary meaning (similar to the word "screw" in English), so I was particularly shy to use this fringe word in Italian even once I learned it.

Second, I try to make sure that we are always providing system that people can grow into that allows them access to core words in the future. 

There are a few options for this that can work well in combination:

  • learning to use the alphabet
  • learning a set of core words represented by picture and sight words
  • (if appropriate, some core manual signs)

The first two are easiest if the locations don't move around.  Just like how I like my keyboard to stay the same (and angry words have been known to be said at my house when I find my keyboard is has been switched the Dvorák layout again), I also prefer to model words on AAC systems where the locations don't keep moving around.

And I still use those core manual signs. Just before I moved back to New Zealand, I found myself  modelling the  sign the word more to an Italian 10 month old between bits of whipped cream. (And for the record, whipped cream and gelato seem to be culturally appropriate, parent-approved early food choices in Italy.)

  • Banajee, M., Dicarlo, C., & Stricklin, S. B. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), 19, 67-73.


  • Leech, Geoffrey, Paul Rayson, and Andrew Wilson. Word frequencies in written and spoken English: based on the British National Corpus. Longman, 2001.