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Anchors Away! Blending Core and Fringe

Posted Jan 20, 2016 - 10:56am

By Russell Cross, PRC Director of Clinical Applications

One of the reasons using the Unity® language system is so popular is the simple fact that it provides a solid core vocabulary set. And the reason a core vocabulary is so useful is that it contains words used by everyone regardless of age, location, or topic. For example, all of us will use the word stop today at least once and the word and too many times to count! Those of us who are interested in words and statistics sometimes describe core words as being predictable. By that, we mean we can say with a high degree of certainty that it’s extremely probable that an individual will use the words that, want, and me many times in a single day.

On the other hand, there are words that are pretty unpredictable, such as aardvark, brevity, compost, and deciduous, and these are what are often called fringe words in the world of AAC. The probability of someone using any of these words in a single day is very low.

What this tells us is that if you are wanting to help someone learn words, focusing on those high frequency core words is always a good bet because they are predictable and probable. But it doesn’t mean we should ignore fringe words. On the contrary, we can use low frequency words to provide what I call “anchors” for teaching and reinforcing those high frequency core words. For example, I can teach the word tree, a relatively low frequency word, alongside other more high frequency words. Here’s a hypothetical dialog:

ME: What’s this? (Pointing at a picture of a tree).

TOM: Tree (Using a sequence I just showed him).

ME: Is it big or little? (Forcing a choice between two core words).

TOM: Big.

ME: Yes, a big tree. (Expanding to include the core words, a and big).

ME: Look at this. (Showing new picture of two trees, a big one and a little one).

ME: What is it? (Pointing at the little tree).

TOM: Tree.

ME: Is it big or little? (Forcing a choice but this time there’s a correct answer).

TOM: Little.

ME: Yes, the little tree. (Expanding again).

ME: What about this one? (Pointing at the big tree).

TOM: Big.

ME: Yes, it’s a big tree. (Expanding using it’s).

You can see how the fringe word tree is being used as an anchor word that lets you put other words before and after it. I could have taught exactly the same lesson by changing the pictures and using the word apple instead of tree. Or kite. Or squirrel. Or anything that can be represented as big or little. In fact, after showing Tom a “big/little tree” pair and a “big/little apple” pair, I’d show him BOTH pairs and point to one of the four and ask “What’s this?” in order to try to elicit “big apple” or “small tree” or any of those combinations.

The point is that you can use anchoring to blend the teaching of core with the teaching of fringe without falling into the trap of simply trying to teach lists and lists of fringe words. If you want to add aardvark to your system, by all means do that, but at the same time make sure you teach it within the context of using core around it.


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