Core Vocabulary Annotated Bibliography

Core Vocabulary is a term used to describe a relatively small set of words that are used most frequently in oral and written language. The words in a core vocabulary can be used to communicate for a broad range of purposes, from basic requesting of desired items to building social relationships, sharing opinions and exchanging information on topics of interest. Because of its flexibility and relatively small size, core vocabulary is featured in Project Core as it maximizes opportunities for teaching and learning across purposes, contexts, and communication partners.

Download this annotated bibliography on core vocabulary here (.pdf)


Beukelman, D. R., Jones, R. S., Rowan, M. (1989). Frequency of word usage by nondisabled peers in integrated preschool classrooms. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 5, 243-248. doi:10.1080/07434618912331275296

This was one of the first studies focused on the words preschoolers use to communicate across activities. The authors recorded 3000-word language samples for each of 6 children without disabilities in an integrated preschool classroom. The 250 most frequently occurring words made up 85% of the total language sample, while the 25 most frequently occurring words made up nearly half (45%). The top 25 words did not include any nouns and were used by all six children. This was one of the first studies to document young children’s use of abstract referents (e.g., it, that, more) to communicate with each other about a variety of activities across contexts.

Banajee, M., Dicarlo, C., Stricklin, S. (2003). Core vocabulary determination for toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19, 67-73. doi:10/1080/0743461031000112034

The goal of this study was to identify the words that toddlers use most frequently across a variety of contexts. The authors recorded 50 typically developing toddlers (24-36 months) as they engaged in two different activities across three days. A total of 23 words accounted for 96% of the words this group of children used. The words, in descending frequency of use were: I, no, yes/yea, my, the, want, is, it, that, a, go, mine, you, what, on, in, here, more, out, off, some, help, all done/finished. This study strengthens the premise that core vocabulary can be applied across activities and environments. The fact that no nouns appeared on the list supports the understanding that even very young children depend on abstract vocabulary to communicate across contexts, purposes, and partners.

Clendon, S. A., & Erickson, K. A. (2008). The vocabulary of beginning writers: Implications for children with complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 24, 281-293. doi:10.1080/07434610802463999

The purpose of this study was to examine the vocabulary typically developing early-elementary school children use when they write about self-selected topics.  Across seven schools (k-3), 125 children in the US and in 113 New Zealand wrote about self-selected topics at least three times per week for 6 weeks. A total of 2,721 writing samples with 85,759 total words and 5,724 different words were analyzed to determine which words were used most frequently. The set of 163 words accounted for 70% of the total words used, with 39 of those words accounting for 50% of the total words used. While this study focused on written language, it adds to our understanding that a small set of words comprise the vast majority of the total words used in oral and written language.

Dennis, A., Erickson, K., & Hatch, P. (2013). The dynamic learning maps core vocabulary: Overview [technical review]

This paper outlines the process for identifying a comprehensive list of core vocabulary for school-aged students with significant cognitive disabilities in academic settings. Core words lists from 23 commercial and public domain sources were combined to determine the words that appeared across sources. Then, the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math were analyzed one-by-one to identify words that students had to say to meet a standard. In total, 596 words were each weighted for: (1) the core vocabulary sources that included the word; (2) the frequency of appearance in written English (U-score); and (3) number of open- and closed- word classes the word addresses. The resulting ranked list resulted in the DLM First 40, which was an important precursor to the Universal Core vocabulary and other commercially available AAC software and apps.

Snodgrass, M. R., Stoner, J. B., & Angell, M. E. (2013). Teaching conceptually referenced core vocabulary for initial augmentative and alternative communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 29, 322-333. doi:10.3109/07434618.2013.848932

This study demonstrated that a child with severe intellectual disability and vision impairments could learn to use conceptual, core words to communicate across a variety of activities. Chad, a nine-year-old boy with multiple disabilities participated in the study with his school team. The team selected and used three words (more, done, and new) throughout Chad’s daily routines at school. Chad learned to use all three symbols to communicate spontaneously and independently during targeted and novel activities. This study is important because Chard learned to use words without concrete referents (e.g., nouns) and generalized his use of the core words to new activities without direct instruction.

Further References

Articles concluding that a relatively small set of core words makes up 80% of what English speakers say across contexts

Beukelman, D., Jones, R., & Rowan, M. (1989) Frequency of word usage by nondisabled peers in integrated preschool classrooms. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 5, 243-248. doi:10.1080/07434618912331275296

Robillard, M., Mayer-Crittenden, C., Minor-Corriveau, M., & Bélanger, R. (2014). Monolingual and bilingual children with and without primary language impairment: Core vocabulary comparison. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30, 267–278. doi:10.3109/07434618.2014.921240

Stuart, S., Beukelman, D., & King, J. (1997). Vocabulary use during extended conversations by two cohorts of older adults. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 13, 40-47/ doi: 10.1080/07434619712331277828.

Trembath, D., Balandin, S., & Togher, L. (2007). Vocabulary selection for Australian children who use augmentative and alternative communication. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 32(4), 291-301. doi:10.1080/13668250701689298

Articles concluding that children’s written language includes a core vocabulary that is similar to the core vocabulary in spoken language

Clendon, S.A., Sturm, J.M., & Cali, K.S., (2013). Vocabulary use across genres: implications for students with complex communication needs. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 44, 61-71. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2-12/10-0112).

McGinnis, J.S., & Beukelman, D.R. (1989). Vocabulary requirements for writing activities for the academically mainstreamed students with disabilities. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 5, 183-191. doi: 10.1080/07434618912331275186.

Witkowski, D., & Baker, B. (2012). Addressing the content vocabulary with core: Theory and practice for non literate or emerging literate students. Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 21, 74–81. doi: 10.1044/aac21.3.74

Articles that support the understanding that core words are useful to communicate about a variety of topics across a variety of activities and contexts

Balandin, S., & Iacono, T. (1999). Crews, wusses, and whoppas: Core and fringe vocabularies of Australian meal-break conversations in the workplace. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 15, 95-109. doi:10.1080/07434619912331278605

Crestani, C. M., Clendon, S. A., Hemsley, B. (2010). Words needed for sharing a story: Implications for vocabulary selection in augmentative and alternative communication. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 35(4), 268-278. doi:10.3109/13668250.2010.513966

Marvin, C., Beukelman, D., & Bilyeu, D. (1994). Vocabulary-use patterns in preschool children: Effect of context and time sampling. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 10, 224-236. doi: 10.1080/07434619412331276930