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Choosing the vocabulary

When you speak, your words act as symbols for what you are meaning, for instance if you say the word "dog" you mean a furry animal which barks and has four legs and a tail. 

For someone using an AAC system, the meaning of the word "dog" might be conveyed bysigning for 'dog' (e.g. by patting your leg); by spelling out the letters 'D', 'O', 'G' on a keyboard; by a photograph of a dog; by a specialsymbol for a dog; or by an object to indicate 'dog', such as a dog's lead.

If the person using an AAC system is able to spell, then they are able to spell out whatever they want to say in much the same way as someone who is able to speak naturally can say what they want to. However, for those using AAC who are not able to spell, the AAC system 'vocabulary' will determine what they can say. It is very difficult to choose the vocabulary for someone. The comments below will give you some ideas of where to start.

Effective Vocabularies

Imagine that from now on you can talk as much as you like, but you can only use the same 100 words. You would need to choose the best 100 words to let you communicate most effectively; with the widest range of people; about the widest range of topics' and both now and in the future. It is difficult to think of which words you are most likely to need - but this is the sort of thing you would have to think about if you were designing an AAC system for someone who could not talk.

You would want a personalised vocabulary reflecting your personality, age, culture and gender.

You would need the vocabulary to be flexible, with words to help you:

  • Start, end and control conversations (e.g. "Can I ask you a question?"; "OK, I'm off now."; "I'd like to talk to you about...")
  • Say what you want, what you need, and how you feel (e.g. "I want to / don't want to watch TV now.";  "I need to go to the bathroom.";  "I'm feeling a bit fed up just now.")
  • Clear up misunderstandings (e.g. "That's not what I meant, I'll say it another way.")
  • Say things that you have never said before in your life (e.g. "Will you marry me?")
  • Talk about your interests (e.g. "That photo has a good depth of field.")
  • Ask questions (e.g. "What did you do on holiday?")
  • Make positive and negative comments (e.g." I really like that."; "I think that class is boring.")
  • Say things angrily, politely, cheekily (e.g. "When are you going to make that cup of tea - I asked you 10 minutes ago!"; "Please can I have a cup of tea?";  "I'd die of thirst before you get round to making that cup of tea!")
  • Tell jokes (e.g. "Knock, knock. Who's there?...")

Which words?

Our personal vocabulary is made up of a mixture of everyday words, personal words, and special words:

  • Everyday words that crop up all day, every day. Studies show that 100 everyday words account for 60% of everything we say.
  • Personal words that are a bit more unusual but are still used a lot. These will include the names of places, people and activities that are important to the individual. If you were the person using AAC you would want to be involved in the choice of these words.
  • Special words for special topics and situations, such as: jokes, compliments and insults, specific interests, words about a job, hobby or school work, 'special event' words (for a holiday, sports day, etc). This will need updating quite often: you might want to be able to talk about a holiday just before you go, while you're there and for a while afterwards but you might not want to be stuck talking about the same holiday two years later! Also, if you were an adult, you would not want to be stuck with the special words that you had as a child.

Who chooses the vocabulary?

If you were the person using AAC, you would want to be involved in choosing the vocabulary available to you. You would want to be central to a team of people who know you well, such as family members, enablers and professionals, who may all have ideas about what useful vocabulary should be included.

Useful Resources

Some examples of 'core vocabulary':
Some high tech vocabulary application programs:
  • CALLtalk - CALL Scotland, University of Edinburgh, Moray House, Paterson's Land, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AQ Tel: 0131 651 6235 Website:
  • Gateway & Word Power - DynaVox Mayer-Johnson; in the UK contact Toby Churchill Ltd, toby Churchill House, Norman Way Industrial Estate, Over, Cambridge CB24 5QE Tel: 01954 281210 Email: Website:
  • Ingfield Dynamic Vocabulary Sets - developed at Ingfield Manor School, Five Oaks, Billingshurst, RH14 9AX Tel: 01403 782294 Email:
  • Minspeak Application Programs - Liberator Ltd, Minerva Business Park, Lynchwood, Peterborough, PE2 6FT Tel: 0845226 1144 Email: Website: