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  • Lindsey O'Neill MA, CCC-SLP

Teaching Core Vocabulary in Play

Today I will share a few fun activities I use to target core vocabulary in speech-language therapy. Before jumping in, you may be asking, "What is core vocabulary?".

Core vocabulary is comprised of simple words that are used frequently and across a variety of communication contexts. How frequently do these words occur? In a 100 word sample, approximately 80% of the words used are "core" words!

Researchers (Banajee et al., 2003) found that toddlers use these 26 words most frequently. As you look at this list, you will notice that many of these words are verbs, pronouns, interjections, determiners, and prepositions. Of course many toddlers also use nouns too, but the "core" words make up a much larger portion of a young child's speech.

Here is a great list of 100 high frequency (core vocabulary) words. This list can be a great guide if your child is trying to work on moving from one-word utterances (e.g. "go") to expanded utterances ( e.g. "go again" or "make it go"). As language develops, and core vocabulary expands fringe vocabulary, which includes primarily, less frequently used nouns and adjectives, also develops.

Many of the children I work with are still considered to be "emergent communicators". They are still learning how to use core vocabulary words to communicate and need highly motivating activities to encourage them to communicate.

Today, I hope to provide you with a few examples of how you can work on core vocabulary while playing with toys.

It is so crucial, whether working with a verbal communicator or a child who uses an AAC device, to teach, model, and support core vocabulary development through engaging activities.

Here are 3 of my current favorite activities I use in therapy!

1. I can't remember the exact name of this toy. I refer to it as the Zoom Toy. I found a similar one on Amazon. This toy is great for older children who are be nonverbal or emergent communicators; you know, the kids who have outgrown Melissa and Doug puzzles and the Little People Farm.

When using this toy, I like to target words like "go", "stop", "up", "down", "push", "it", "in", "out", "you", "my", "yes", "no", "again" and "all done".

When you're playing at home, you can model phrases like "push it", "go up", "my turn", "put it (the disc piece) in", "take it out". You can also ask, "Do you want to do it again or are you all done?".

2. Disclaimer about this next toy: if you find the giggle of a minion to be as pleasant as the screech of nails on a chalkboard, you will find this toy to be equally as pleasant.

BUT, I have had great success using this toy with kids, so it's 100% worth it (for me)! I found it at Target - it was an impulse grab from the clearance section and it now is one of my favorites!

Another reason this toy is awesome: for a lot of children who may not have the best fine motor skills, they will need your help to operate it, which means communication!

Once you push down on the button on top of the banana, the minion spins, lights, up and sings. I like to use this toy to target core words such as "put on" (you have to put the banana on), "push down", "make it go", "it is fast", "make it go again", "make it stop", "help me", and "I want help".

3. Wind up toys are another one of my favorites! This one in particular moves very slowly, so of course I like to target "slow" to describe how the toy moves. You can model "She is slow!", "Look at her go", "You can do it!" (cheering for the toy), "Go again!", "My turn", and much more!

Also, asking questions while offering choices is a great way to promote expanding utterances using core vocabulary. Ask your child, "Do you want to make it go or make it stop?", "Should she (the toy) come here or go there?".

These are some of my favorite toys, but the great news is, once you are more aware of core vocabulary words, you can help support the learning and use of these words in any play situation! You don't need these toys to encourage core vocabulary learning at home.

Think of any routine you perform with you child. Bath time, washing dishes, brushing teeth, putting toys away...there are endless opportunities for you to incorporate core language into these activities, because you already use these words!

I hope you found this post helpful. If you'd like more information about core vocabulary, AAC Language Lab and the Minspeak website are great resources.

Thanks for reading :)

*Vocabulary lists were provided by and

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