Taking a Quick Stop for a Little Academic Lesson

A Few New Words and Foundational Principles:

Before I can really get going on our little travel guide, I need to put my professor hat on for just a minute. I promise this will get more fun, BUT first, I need to introduce a concept to you. It’s a concept so key to everything I’m going to say going forward that it’s impossible to type another word without you knowing. This concept comes from my amazing friend, mentor, and collegue, Dr. Pamela Rollins*. I hope it changes the way you think about talking to your kids. It is called a core vocabulary.

In 1998, Rollins et al, defined “core vocabulary” as being a relatively small number of words that are embedded into meaningful, functional routines and activities.

Using a core vocabulary simplifies the child’s language environment to make it more understandable and more learnable, and it provides the child multiple repetitions of the word in multiple situations. Put simply, creating a core vocabulary aids in language learning. The words in your child’s core vocabulary should also be appropriate to your child’s age in years, and their developmental level in terms of their ability to understand and use words. If you need help identifying appropriate words for your child’s core vocabulary, please ask your speech-language pathologist! And if they need help, please feel free to have them contact me! Core vocabulary is a relatively new concept to a lot of SLP’s.

Think about core vocabulary words as being the words you use or will use the most frequently in your everyday language with your child; words like “hi, bye, more, want, finished, help, no, please, potty, stop, look, wait”, etc. You might use these words separately or in combination, depending on the language level of your child, but you use them a LOT. You should also consider HOW your child can use these words, the reasons why they might need to use them to communicate. The words should have FUNCTION.

There! Now, “core vocabulary” is in YOUR core vocabulary!

Using Picture Symbols to Support Core Vocabulary Learning:

To allow the best chance for language learning, when you introduce a new vocabulary word, give your child a visual component, or “referent,” to associate with the spoken word. Teachers and speech-language pathologists (and parents too) frequently use a software program called Boardmaker, which has a massive library of picture symbols for any given word. More affordably, you may also use a web-based program, such as lessonpix.com. Try to choose picture symbols that are very clear, simple, and uncluttered. Line drawings are typically good.


  1. One you choose a picture symbol for a given word, use the same symbol every time! The picture is now a word to your child.
  2. Use one symbol for each word—NOT for every concept. For instance, if you want to use “close eyes,” use a symbol for “close” and “eyes,” not a picture of closed eyes. In this way, you are supporting true language learning.
  3. Make sure the symbol is available to your child. This isn’t just YOUR word to show–it’s his word too!

This is just the tip of the iceberg where core vocabulary and visuals are concerned — and we’ll dig much deeper later—but now we are ready to put the basics into action in talking about introducing holidays. Ok, taking my professor hat off now…

* Dr. Rollins’ book, Facilitating Early Social Communication: From Theory to Practice, is set for publication this summer by Autism & Aspergers Press. Though it is geared to speech-language pathologists and teachers, it is a FANTASTIC text that does a great job of explaining child development and communication, while giving strategies (including use of core vocabulary and visual symbols) to optimize a child’s language and social learning in a classroom setting. These principles could also easily be applied to one-on-one therapy sessions, with carryover in the home.

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