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Strategies for CUSTOMIZING
for Context-Dependent Communication
Some teams begin by focusing on custom vocabulary, words and phrases
that are specific to the AAC user (e.g. likes and dislikes) or vocabulary
that fits the context of the interaction (e.g. snacktime). There are distinct
advantages to focusing on custom vocabulary, including:
- It is easier to make the vocabulary more powerful to the individual
by focusing on exactly what he wants to say or make happen.
- The vocabulary selection task itself is focused, making it easier
- It is probably easier to teach the use of the vocabulary in a narrow,
- The team can select a context in which vocabulary is easy to identify
and easy to represent (e.g. snack time.)
- The vocabulary can be presented one-context-at-a-time so neither the
user nor the professional is overwhelmed by a huge selection set.
However, there are disadvantages to focusing on custom vocabulary. They
- it is easy to make the activity fit the vocabulary instead of the
vocabulary fit the activity. This may means the vocabulary will not
be useful at any other time for the individual.
- it is easy to focus on a few contexts and feel successful, while you
are failing to provide the user with sufficient vocabulary for the rest
of his life.
14 Strategies for Selecting CUSTOMIZED Vocabulary
What follows are 14 different strategies for identifying custom vocabulary
for an individual. No single strategy works for all individuals; teams
need to decide what works for whom. You'll see that the first 4 strategies
for the context-dependent communicator are the same as the methods described
earlier for the emerging communicator. These are:
Strategy #1: Likes and Dislikes Checklist
Strategy #2: Observation of AAC User
Strategy #3: Communication Breakdown Diary
Strategy #4: Analysis of Inappropriate Behaviors
For details on these techniques, follow this link to
Vocabulary Selection for Emerging Communication
Then there are 9 additional strategies that can be used. You should read
through these strategies and decide which one best applies to the AAC
user you have in mind.
Strategy #5: Review Existing Vocabulary
The context-dependent communicator has already had success with some
vocabulary so you need to find out what was useful and what was not. If
there is some substantial vocabulary, you should ask team members in each
environment to rate the usefulness of the vocabulary. You might copy the
books and boards and ask them to:
* circle the items used a lot and
* cross off items never used with them.
The AAC user should also give her opinions. This could be accomplished
through "yes/no/maybe" signals as the clinician names each vocabulary
item on the display.
The circled items will give you vocabulary that must be available
at least part of the time. Items that are crossed off by all partners
may not be important to consider at this time. Items that have not been
marked should be considered for inclusion but may not be the highest priority.
But don't eliminate emergency vocabulary that just has not been necessary
What you get from this process:
- circled items may be vocabulary that must be available at least
part of the time
- items crossed off by all partners may not be important
to consider at this time
- unmarked items should be considered for inclusion
but may not be the highest priority
Be sure you don't eliminate emergency vocabulary that just has not been
necessary to date!
Strategy #6: Environmental Inventory
Don't confuse this technique with the "Ecological Assessment"
procedures described by Brown et al (1980) for developing adapted curriculum.
This technique derives from that process, but our focus here is to identify
vocabulary. Taking this inventory means identifying the environments that
an AAC user spends time in and then describing the physical surroundings
of each. It is easy to list nouns in this way, but you must not forget
the adjectives, verbs, adverbs and other types of words that would be
appropriate for that setting.
What you get:
Vocabulary that can be predicted from the physical environment, for
- Child's Doll House: list of furniture, rooms, dolls, clothes
- Youth's Computer Games: list of software available, comments about
- Adult's Kitchen: utensils, cooking supplies, actions used in cooking
It is essential to combine this technique with other methods of vocabulary
selection, in particular the observational techniques described below.
If you do not, the vocabulary you identify will not facilitate interaction.
Strategy #7: Participation Inventory
This method is similar to the environmental inventory, but concentrates
on the activities that take place in these environments. An observer
must identify the activities and the steps necessary to participate in
them. He should record whether the activities are to be performed by the
AAC user independently or with assistance. The observer should note vocabulary
that is required for the individual to complete each step as independently
as possible, but also vocabulary for directing an assistant (e.g. open
my locker, please).
What you get:
This technique yields vocabulary that will help an individual take on
new responsibilities in tasks where s/he was entirely dependent before.
For example, a child should learn to be in control of his person and
his belongings when he arrives at school. He needs vocabulary to direct
others to take off his jacket and get his books out of his book bag,
rather than sitting passively while others make assumptions about what
he needs done for him.
Strategy #8: Topic Inventory
There is some evidence that clinicians are not especially good at picking
specific vocabulary; they are far better at identifying topics
that must be covered (see Balandin
& Iacono, 1998). Here are two topic lists for two different populations:
- Adult Topic
List compiled from a variety of sources (noted at the bottom) for
adults with acquired impairments, such as aphasia due to a stroke.
- Multi-age Activity List compiled
by students in an AAC course.
Other researchers have identified the topics of conversations for younger
AAC users. The website for the Barkley
Augmentative and Alternative Communication Center has some of the
best information. When you get to that site, select "Vocabulary"
from the left menu bar (it may require scrolling down). You should be
able to find excellent resources, including those used to generate our
topic list above.
What you get:
This technique yields the highest priority topics for an individual
and/or his caregivers. You then have to use another technique, for
example #9 below, to identify the actual vocabulary for that topic.
Strategy #9: Topic-specific Conversation
This method works well in combination with the topic inventory just
above, primarily for adults. Once the high-priority topics have been
identified, a familiar partner is asked to talk about the
AAC user in relation to those topics. For example, if Mrs. Smith has
suffered a stroke and is beginning to use AAC, then Mr. Smith would
identify the high priority topics and we would talk to him about each
one in order to gather vocabulary. He might identify "friends"
as a high priority, so we would ask him to talk to us about all of their
What you get:
This is different from asking the partner to give us a list of friends.
We are asking him to talk to us about these people and their
relationship with Mrs. Smith. If we record the conversation, we can
obtain a lot more information than just a list of names, including
adjectives ("best friend"), time frames ("friend from
college"), relationship (e.g. "godmother to our children"),
activities ("volunteered at the hospital together"), events
("died last year") and feelings or judgments (e.g. "missing
To be sure that you understood correctly, the vocabulary that you get
this way should be reviewed again by other partners and by the AAC user
herself. Even if Mrs. Smith can only do "thumbs down" on including
some people or some activities in her book, it is essential that she
have this control over it.
Strategy #10: Observation of Speaking
Peers/Friends/Family, without AAC user
This means observing speakers who are doing activities or discussing
topics that interest the AAC user. Ideally, you should select speakers
who are close to the AAC user because the vocabulary will be most similar
and it is best to record and transcribe this conversation. This process
will provide a great deal of vocabulary you might not otherwise anticipate.
What you get:
With this technique, you usually get much more vocabulary than the
AAC user has, because speakers are so talkative! If the topic were
shopping, you will get the ordinary words (e.g. store names, types
of clothing.) but you will also get historical connections (e.g. "when
her car died at the mall") and perspectives on the AAC user (e.g.
Mary [Smith] sure hates pants suits!') or on friends (e.g. "Aunt
Martha loves her hats").
The AAC user should be able to review and veto and vocabulary obtained
this way. She might really object to sounding like her own Aunt Martha!
Strategy #11: Observation/transcription
of Speaking Peer and AAC User
This method will surprise you. There will be many, many words that
speakers use that are not available to the user even though speakers
use them TO the AAC user all the time. Some of these may be inappropriate
to provide to the AAC user but many words/phrases will be essential
for this individual to have.
Here is a form that we use for this type of observation: AAC
Peer Observation Form. Feel free to print out this form for your
own personal use with AAC clients.
And here is an example of how that form might be filled out during
an observation of circle time in a Kindergarten class: EXAMPLE
of completed AAC Peer Observation Form
What you get:
You can see that this type of observation is likely to yield both
predictable and unpredictable utterances that you should consider
for the AAC user. Here are examples of the unexpected vocabulary we
might have found from our observation.
* slang, e.g."Gross" or "Yuck!"
* social exchanges and negotiations, e.g. "Go away!" or
* discussions that are off-task, such as "I went to a farm last
Since this vocabulary comes from speaking peers, you will have to decide
its relevance for this particular child, but it is potentially very
important to the child's socialization. Check out two other great tools
that use observation: PACT: Partners in Augmentative Communication Training
(Culp & Carlisle, 1998)
and ChalkTalk (Culp & Effinger,
Strategy #12: Role Playing and Dialoguing
Many of the vocabulary collection methods listed above yield vocabulary
that is specific to a particular activity. Role playing that activity
ahead of time can help you identify gaps in the vocabulary prior to
some important event.
What you get: If you used role playing for a job interview,
for example, you might identify:
a) missing vocabulary (e.g. "salary", "responsibilities")
b) vocabulary that sounds too informal (or formal) for that actual
(e.g. "How's it going?" instead of "How
c) messages that should be programmed as one utterance for speed
(e.g. "It's been nice talking to you."
"When can I expect to hear back from you?")
Strategy #13: Vocabulary for Language Learning
This is the vocabulary that is part of the individual's goals for expressive
communication. This would include vocabulary or structures that are
just a bit beyond the individual's current developmental level, but
considered essential for later independence with AAC. You must consider
expanding the individual's communication in terms of all the following:
* Words (semantics): AAC users have to develop a rich vocabulary
with subtle distinctions between words.
* Grammar (syntax): This refers to the rules we use to put
words together AND to understand words in context.
* Morphology: This refers to the prefixes and suffixes that
* Phonology: These are the rules of the sounds of language.
This is an important building block for literacy, so essential for
* Pragmatics: the use of language in an interaction. AAC users
must not be confined to "responses" only.
Thinking about vocabulary for language learning is the best way to
challenge ourselves about how we have chosen to organize words, phrases
and messages for AAC users. To test out the way in which a given device
or book is organized, just use the system in a conversation yourself.
You'll see where any problems lie.
Strategy #14: Novel Vocabulary, Gathered Through
Our words change so fast that AAC users who cannot spell very well
must learn early to convey concepts not in their selection set. This
means trying to convey words and phrases in some other way. Here are
some common strategies and tools that can be provided the AAC user to
make this possible:
a) Alphabet for partial spelling: Even very young AAC users
may be able to spell the first letter of new words, such as the names
of new toys, like "Furby" or " Pokemon". This
can be accomplished by pointing to letters on a display, speaking
letters through voice output ("F" "U" etc.) or
even through fingerspelling.
b) Control phrases can be used to hint about a concept. For
example, a child might convey a new word by saying "It looks
like" + "a circle" and "It rhymes with + soup"
to ask for a "hoola hoop".
A list of these control phrases is available on the website for the
and Alternative Communication Center. Many of these phrases have
to be taught to the user, but they become invaluable when used well.
c) Magazines and newspapers: AAC users should be given the
opportunity to routinely go through these resources, looking for vocabulary
d) The Web: Some AAC users have learned to find things on
the web, even if they cannot spell well enough to use a search engine.
Family and caregivers should find new concepts on those pages for
inclusion in any communication device or book.
e) Picture Dictionaries: These books should be kept available,
not only for children but for older AAC users as well. It is another
way for them to request words that are not in their current selection
We have taught these techniques to AAC users so that they can convey
concepts not in their original selection set. But then we have to
follow-through and actually include them in the vocabulary for the
The AAC user herself should be consulted about all of this vocabulary.
This can be done in several ways, from the clinician reading the list
outloud and the AAC user signaling yes/no/maybe for each one ...to the
AAC user reading and marking vocabulary herself. This input and control
by the AAC user is crucial for success of any vocabulary.
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