TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #5:
Connecting Core Words, Aided Language Modeling, and Literacy

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Building communicative competence for students with significant communications needs enables them to thrive in inclusive contexts. The use of core words and aided language modeling with these students not only increases augmentative alternative communication (AAC) use, but also forms a connection with literacy instruction.


Aided language modeling combined with core vocabulary approaches is useful for increasing receptive and expressive language for students with complex communication needs. It also increases AAC use by these students (Erikson & Geist, 2016; O’Neil, Light, & Pope; 2018). The core vocabulary approach represents language in a way that promotes the formation of phrases and sentences, which creates a natural literacy connection (Binger, & Light, 2007; Harris & Reichle, 2004; Romski, Sevcik, Cheslock, & Barton, 2006).


Aided language modeling is modeling the use of a student’s AAC system by individuals in the environment who do not have significant communications needs. Best practice involves the use of an evidence-based strategy that utilizes a communications partner to model the use of AAC with an AAC user. The communication partner uses the AAC device to model language using complete sentences, fixed position symbols/words for motor planning, slow speech, and waiting for engagement.

Augmentative alternative communication (AAC) refers to communication methods (other than oral speech) used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas (Kleinert, Holman, McSheehan, & Kearns, 2010).

Core words are words (e.g. verbs, adjectives/adverbs, and pronouns) used for a variety of communicative intents (e.g. requesting – “want”; commenting – “love”; refusing “stop”). These are the words that comprise most of the content used in a typical conversation. There are a relatively small set of core words, which individuals can successfully use in a range of communicative opportunities and interactions using them.  

Expressive language refers to the ways that an individual indicates their wants and needs.

Fringe words are nouns that are specific to persons, places, or things that are highly specific or unique to the user and/or an activity in which they are involved.

Motor planning refers to planning, and carrying out a motor activity (in this case, ones that are supportive of communication) in the correct sequence. 

Receptive language refers to how an individual understands information received from others.

Slow speech refers to the slowing down of a partner’s speech as part of aided language modeling. The slowing down of the partner’s speech allows the student using AAC to have time to process the partner’s message.


The combination of core words and fringe words allows a student with significant communication needs to have a robust vocabulary using AAC.  In the image, the fringe words for the core word “do” include words related to activities that the student does at home such as play ball, play with a friend, play in the snow, play outside, go to the store, ride the motorcycle, watch TV, and feed the chickens. It is easy to see the level of specificity that is unique to this user – not everyone has chickens. This robust vocabulary allows them to participate meaningfully in academic and social activities including telling, writing, spelling, etc.

Strategies for connecting core words, aided language modeling, and literacy can be found below:

In this image, the fringe words for the core word “do” include words related to activities that the student does at home such as play ball, play with a friend, play in the snow, play outside, go to the store, ride the motorcycle, watch TV, and feed the chickens

Create Core Vocabulary Arrangements. Selection of the core vocabulary arrangement allows the student to access highly flexible words used most often across the day.  Core vocabulary arrangements can include any number of symbols/words from a minimum of four for those students who are unable to point to symbols/words and need an alternate means of access to many more.  An alternate means of access might be the use of eye gaze, partner assisted scanning, or access to 3-D/tactile symbols due to vision.  The teachers should be modeling from the 36 words on the Universal Core (see Project Core information in the Resources), and larger arrays can be used as appropriate for the student. The array should be organized with pronouns on the left, verbs in the middle, and adjectives/adverbs to the right. The array in the image uses Boardmaker© symbols in a 45-word array which fits on a tablet screen. Nouns (i.e., fringe words) represent highly individualized words located by links on a device or as a tab in printed models.

Use Aided Language Modeling. Aided language modeling requires communication partners to use sentences, but not every word in the sentence will have a symbol/word on the communication display, The communication partner should:

  • Speak slowly and point to the symbols/words,
  • Vocally emphasize the key symbols/words,
  • Pause frequently,
  • Wait for the student to engage.

In the video clip, the speech-language pathologist (SLP) is modeling for the student using his device.

Make the Literacy Connection. Connecting core vocabulary and aided language modeling to literacy occurs when the student and educators use core vocabulary arrangements in academic activities involving vocabulary development such as reading, writing, and spelling in literacy  activities with some simple adaptations. Creating content specific fringe vocabulary can help the student participate in literacy activities. These may be separate from the student’s device or there may be a reading folder where specific fringe vocabulary for reading is located.  It is important to be thoughtful and strategic about what fringe vocabulary to include.  The core arrangement itself may also be used to describe what happened in the book although not all needed words may be available.  The verbs and adverbs are placed to make it easier for the student to participate. Nouns primarily make up the fringe vocabulary.

This image shows a fringe arrangement for the book, The Giving Tree (Silverstein, 1964), using Boardmaker© symbols.

The image shows a fringe arrangement for the book, The Giving Tree (Silverstein, 1964), using Boardmaker© symbols. The nouns highlighted by yellow backgrounds include the words  “boy,” “tree,” “leaves,” “branches,” “apple,” “tree trunk,” “house,” “money,” and “boat.” Verbs are highlighted in pink backgrounds include “hide & seek,” “sleep,” “grow-up, and “sit.”  Adverbs are highlighted in blue include the words “happy,” “sad,” and “old.”

Spelling is also important for literacy.  Adding a letter arrangement provides the opportunity for students to embed spelling as a part of the lesson.  The folder in the image includes a 45-word core array, numbers and their numeric representations, colors, and the alphabet for spelling.

The folder in this image includes a 45-word core array, numbers and their numeric representations, colors, and the alphabet for spelling.


A key to successful inclusion, and better outcomes, for students with significant communications needs is getting a communications system in place in a timely manner.  AAC using core vocabulary words and fringe words, combined with aided language modeling, connects well with literacy activities. This provides support for both language and literacy skills development.


PrAACtical AAC

This website has a wealth of resources related to core vocabulary and implementation strategies. The site “supports a community of professionals and families who are determined to improve the communication and literacy abilities of people with significant communication difficulties.”

Project Core

This web site, operated by the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has many resources for educators and other school professionals related to core vocabulary.

TAALC Project (Teaching Age-Appropriate Academic Learning via Communication)

This website from the TAALC Project at the Human Development Institute, University of Kentucky, supports professional learning for teachers that improves communication and educational services to students with the most significant disabilities.


  • Binger, C., & Light, J. (2003). The effect of aided AAC modeling on the expression of multi-symbol messages by preschoolers who use AAC. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 23(1), 30–43.
  • Erikson, K., & Geist, L. (2016). The profiles of students with significant cognitive disabilities and complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 32, 187–197.
  • Harris, M., & Reichle, M. (2004). The impact of aided language stimulation on symbol comprehension and production in children with moderate cognitive disabilities. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 13, 155–167.
  • Kleinert, J., Holman, A., McSheehan, M., & Kearns, J. (2010). The importance of developing communicative competence. In Synthesis Report (No. 1). Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, National Alternate Assessment Center.
  • O’Neill, T., Light, J., & Pope, L. (2018). Effects of interventions that include aided augmentative and alternative communication input on the communication of individual with complex communication needs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61(7), 1743–1765.
  • Romski, M. A., Sevcik, R. A., Cheslock, M., & Barton, A. (2006). The System for Augmenting Language (SAL: AAC and Emerging Language Intervention). In R. McCauley & M. Fey (Eds.), Treatment of language disorders in children (pp. 123–147). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
  • Silverstein, S. (1964). The Giving Tree. San Francisco: Harper & Row.


Tobii Dynavox Boardmaker symbols used with permission.

TIPS Series: Tip #5, January, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Kearns, J., & Kleinert, J. (2020). Connecting core words, aided language modeling, and literacy (TIPS Series: Tip #5). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota (# H326Y170004) and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. There are six additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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