Using Core Words in the Classroom: Some Guidelines

As this is my first blog of the New Year, I want to wish you all a wonderful 2021. May we all soon see the end of covid! We will start off the year by talking about the use of core words in the classroom.

Teachers and therapist often ask me how much time they should spend on teaching a particular core word (or words) to their class before moving on to the next core word. Truth be told, this is a very difficult question to answer, as there are so many different factors impacting how long students take to learn a specific core word.

Traditionally we formulated our vocabulary goals by specifying that the child is able to use one language function at a time, e.g., requesting. We would use the words “I want” and encourage the student to indicate whatever s/he would like to choose. The focus is therefore on choice-making. The following video is a typical example of this kind of approach, where the focus is on getting the student to request specific objects to express needs and wants.

The principle of using core words to promote language and communication development, however, is based on a different premise. 

Principle of Using Core Words to Promote Language Development

A core word approach teaches functional use by combining the core word with a variety of other words (not only nouns or labels) to enhance the idea that the word can be used in different ways for different purposes. The core word (e.g., go) is, therefore, not only used in one semantic context (e.g., go to the house, go to school), but also in other semantic contexts (e.g., going to bed, where did he go? I don’t know where to go.). It is this dynamic use of the core word, therefore, that is at the forefront of a semantic approach toward vocabulary training. Rather than focusing on “I want” with a variety of different objects to choose from, as in the first video, we would like the student to become familiar with using “want” in different semantic contexts, e.g., I do not want (negation), want something small/big (descriptive), want this after/before I go to school (time dimension).

How Much Time Should I Spend Teaching a Core Word?

When we ask the question of how much time we should spend teaching a specific core word, we want to think about the different contexts in which the word can be used to emphasize the dynamic nature of the concept. Thinking about a teaching goal (i.e., time dedicated to teach a core word) is also different from a learning outcome (i.e., time taken for the child to learn a core word). Even though we try and integrate the two types of goals, it is often quite challenging to do so.

Teachers do need to decide how long to expose the whole class to a specific core word based on the appropriateness for the group. Setting a time for teaching exposure, however, also needs to be complemented with the individual student goals (IEP) to ensure monitoring of individual learning outcomes. These individual goals could include exposing the student to the core word until s/he can:

  • identify the word on a display (recognizing it)
  • Understand it in combination with other words in one or two semantic contexts
  • Independently use it in two (or more) semantic contexts

For individual AAC therapy sessions, Carol Zangari suggests the following steps in her discussion on vocabulary learning:

Step 1: Introduce the new word(s) using focused aided language stimulation
Step 2: Teach the new word(s) with explicit instruction activities
Step 3: Elaborate on the new word meanings with engaging practice activities
Step 4: Provide repeated exposure to the new word(s) on an ongoing basis
Step 5: Check for understanding and reteach, as necessary.

Moving to the Next Core Word

Oftentimes, however, the teacher and therapist might have to move on to the next core word (e.g. like) before the last learning objectivesa are reached to prevent the sessions from drifting into rote repetition. The introduction of a new core word in combination with the old could spark new interest and present new activities for learning. While the new core word becomes the primary focus for teaching, the previous core word is maintained but as a secondary focus. It is the cumulative effect of learning about core words and their dynamic nature that creates the vibrant learning environment that we are aiming to create. For example, Jim likes to go to school; Do you like me? I like you, but I do not want to go with you (combining the secondary word “go” and primary focus word “like”)

In addition to monitoring whether the student identify the new concept, we also need to take note of how many different semantic contexts the student understands and/or uses the concept in. We need to keep reporting on the frequency and use of the secondary core words to present a meaningful perspective of the student’s progress.

Practical Tips for Core Words Classroom Implementation

In my work as consultant in the schools, I have identified some commonalities between the ways in which I have seen some teachers and therapists introduce core vocabulary in a meaningful way in the classroom. The number of core words and the rate at which they are introduced can differ, but the basic design is similar.

Teaching of Core Words

Teachers generally decide to focus on one or two core words a week, depending on learning goals for the group. The core word lesson is usually toward the beginning of the day and could include a mix of three different segments, as follow:

  • Reviewing previous core words: The first part of this lesson is spent on reviewing the secondary (previous) core words to keep reinforcing their use and meaning within different semantic contexts.
  • Today’s new focus word: The new concept is introduced and repeated every day. The new core word is introduced in at least two semantic contexts (e.g., like to, like you).
  • Novel contexts to use these core words: This part of the lesson is intended to stimulate the students in suggesting new ways in which to use the concepts (e.g., like my dog, like granny, not like hot tea). Generally, this is the space for the teacher to bring in ways in which the core word was spontaneously used during the previous day’s activities that were not planned or programmed.

Monitoring How the Core Word Is Used During Daily Activities

Because we are teaching high-frequency words when we use a core vocabulary approach, the possibility that we will use the focus word spontaneously in different classroom activities is more than likely. We do want to capitalize on these spontaneous learning opportunities by recording the use of the core words to enable us to introduce these semantic contexts as part of the novel word uses the next day. Initially this might involve making some audio recordings of different curricula activities during the day to allow the teacher and assistants to review these interactions to get a better idea of spontaneous use of the core words in their interactions. In my experience, teaching aides and teachers quickly train themselves to become more aware of the use of core words in their daily interactions. What we are doing here is therefore:

  • Increasing our awareness of when we use these core words in daily activities
  • Objectifying these uses in the novel contexts section of our word-learning lesson
  • Using our knowledge of spontaneous use to infuse more core word practicing opportunities during the day.

A Final Comment

The two practical points above highlight the principle of integrating a structural core vocabulary teaching program (what will be taught each week) with a keen observation of how the core words are used in spontaneous interaction by students and educational staff. The strength of a core vocabulary approach lies in combining what core words we teach with how students are spontaneously exposed to these core words in daily interactions with others in the classroom. The more accurately we can identify the ways in which core words are used in spontaneous interactions in the classroom, the more likely it is that we can assist students to use these words in daily interactions.

Please feel free to comment—this is a learning process for all!

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