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We don’t talk about nouns no, no, no…!

Posted Mar 7, 2022 - 11:24am

By Emily Gabrielle, Liberator Ltd

Encanto fever has swept our house of late (seriously we’re listening to the soundtrack every day!). We love all the characters – but especially Bruno, the family member no-one talks about due to his misunderstood powers and the perceived havoc they can wreak.

As I was writing this blog (and inevitably humming along to the Encanto soundtrack for the millionth time) I couldn’t help see some comparisons between Bruno and our vocabulary friends (or enemies perhaps?)– the nouns.

You see, those of us well versed in AAC know and love a bit of core vocabulary. Anyone who’s ever sat in a training session with me will no doubt have heard me talk about core and it’s benefits when included in an AAC system. In contrast to core vocabulary, we also have fringe vocabulary – so what is the difference?

Core vocabulary

These words tend to be small words which are not specific to a topic or activity. Core words consist of all word types including verbs (action words), determiners (this, that etc), descriptors (big, small etc), pronouns (I, you etc) and conjunctions (and etc).

Fringe vocabulary

These words are nouns or proper nouns (names) and are much easier to represent with a picture on a vocabulary system. They are very topic specific and often highly personal to individuals. What may be frequently used nouns for one person may not be for another and so many factors can determine this.

Those of us who work in AAC love core vocabulary for many reasons including: -

  • It represents the most frequently used words across language samples for various groups of individuals (typically most language sampling studies indicate that within the most frequently used words the ratio of core to fringe words is around 80% core and 20% fringe).
  • Core vocabulary words can often be used much more flexibly - giving greater communication value for money when teaching someone new vocabulary words. For example – if I teach an individual the word ‘bubbles’ they can only ask for bubbles. However, if I teach them ‘play’ they can request to ‘play’ a game, ‘play’ with a toy, ‘play’ music etc.
  • Core vocabulary words often offer multiple language functions – whereas with fringe vocabulary we can only really label or request – core vocabulary words allow us to direct, respond, comment, reject, describe and more!

Taking all of the above into consideration, it’s easy to think of nouns as a bit like Bruno in that we don’t talk about them so much. As they offer less communication value for money, nouns can become a bit of a forbidden word and when thinking about the words we teach we can begin to shun them, instead focussing solely on core.

It’s tempting to go to this extreme and only teach someone core words – but we must remember that this isn’t reflective of how we use language ourselves. More importantly when those of us who developed spoken language were first learning, a lot of our first words will have likely been names of things which were important to us.

Think of it this way? How weird would the English language be if it were devoid of nouns? A world without any nouns would be a strange place indeed. For starters it would be REALLY hard to play I-Spy….

We just need to keep it balanced and avoid OVERLOADING systems with every possible noun someone may ever need and instead think about which nouns are useful, meaningful, and motivating. For example - it may be useful to teach someone how to say ‘crisps’ if it’s their absolute favourite snack – but do they need to be able to name every single variety? Or will simply choosing ‘crisps’ and then pointing to the desired bag or using colours to choose a flavour work?

Remember to choose the nouns which are important to the person you are working with and avoid the nouns which have no relevance or importance for the individual -  I’m pretty sure those curriculum words, which are needed to label the parts of a flower, aren’t that important to most of us.

So, I beg you – please don’t ignore nouns completely – rather bear in mind the usefulness of the nouns you add or teach – words which are personal or important to the AAC user will be frequently used and so have importance. The nouns taught to an individual who watches the football every weekend may differ from that of someone who goes to the zoo regularly. Think about a person’s daily lives, their interests and what motivates them – and make sure that the nouns you are teaching them reflect this.

The core revolution is certainly reflected in the AAC vocabularies which are out there and the majority of our AAC vocabularies prioritise access to core vocabulary over nouns, so that people using AAC have the most frequently used words most easily accessible. But just like Bruno the nouns are there, waiting in the wings. So don’t avoid all nouns, just pick the ones that matter.

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Making AAC Work   -    AAC, literacy, school, writing, core, fringe, Encanto


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