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Home > Vocabulary Selection > Context Dependent Communication > Customized

Strategies for CUSTOMIZING Vocabulary
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 to complete.
  • It is probably easier to teach the use of the vocabulary in a narrow, personal context
  • 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 are:

  • 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 to date!

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 example:

  • Child's Doll House: list of furniture, rooms, dolls, clothes
  • Youth's Computer Games: list of software available, comments about the games
  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 with Partners

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 friends.

    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 her now").

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 "Sit here"
    * discussions that are off-task, such as "I went to a farm last weekend"

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, 1996)

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 activity
        (e.g. "How's it going?" instead of "How are you?")
    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 add meaning
    * Phonology: These are the rules of the sounds of language. This is an important building block for literacy, so essential for AAC users.
    * 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 Hints

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 Barkley Augmentative 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 they need.

    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 set.

    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 next occurrence.

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.

    Return to Vocabulary Selection for Context-Dependent Communication
    Go on to Strategies for Using NON-CUSTOMIZED Vocabulary