Expanding AAC Vocabulary: Where Do I Go From Here?

For parents and professionals who support students using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), deciding which words to add can be daunting. After all, there are an infinite number of words, and vocabulary is always growing.

We make up new words. We use old words in a different way. This week, a high school student asked me to add “squad” to his device. He handed me a sticky note where his mom had written “squad.” Since I have two teenagers, I knew enough to ask if he wanted it added under “FRIEND” and say, “Who’s in your squad?” (For those of you who don’t have teenagers, their “squad”or “gang” is their close group of friends.)

So, how do I know what words to add?

It’s ideal if the students are able to ask you directly to add vocabulary…and eventually program new vocabulary themselves. When students are able to spell, take note of the words they’re typing. That’s also a good indication of vocabulary that can be added.

Current box of toys in my back seat for a Sesame Street fan.

Years ago, I created this Building Language Where Do I Start? graphic to provide a map of vocabulary and language expansion from a single interest of the student. I’m linking it again because I still use it to brainstorm when I’m looking at next steps for students. This can also help when you’re trying to figure out which words to open or add. You can use it for any AAC language system.¬†Give the student the vocabulary to talk about the things he/she loves.

Can we programmatically help expand language?

One of the advantages we have as speech-language pathologists who are also developers of an AAC language system is that we use the Speak for Yourself (SfY) app with students almost daily. The features in the app are AAC-problem-solving tools…

People don’t provide aided language input because they can’t find vocabulary? Create an easy and immediate “Search” feature.

People using AAC have to delete semi-formed messages when they get interrupted? Give them the ability to “Hold That Thought.”

People using AAC need to be able to explore a large, robust vocabulary, but not be visually overwhelmed when they’re first introduced to an AAC system? Make a one touch feature that allows them to “Babble.”

We aren’t sitting in an office making development decisions. We are on preschool floors, in children’s homes, and in high school classrooms when we make many of our development decisions. Our ideas come from our own frustration as SLPs, toddlers (although I don’t think they realize it;) and from parents, professionals, and people using Speak for Yourself who are able to directly provide feedback.

One of those ideas has been implemented in the newest release of Speak for Yourself (version 2.9).

Introducing Babble History!

Version 2.9 of Speak for Yourself has several editing improvements, including the option to continue editing when you enter a duplicate word. But an exciting change is the addition of Babble History!

Babble History helps you answer the “Where do I go from here?” with actual data! The History Feature of Speak for Yourself will now give you some direction…based on the vocabulary that’s being explored! Here’s how it works:

  • For optimum use of this feature, Babble and the History feature should both be unlocked.
  • The Babble History option is part of the History Feature pop up. When you go into the History, you’ll notice a third option at the bottom of the pop up that says Babble.

Speak for Yourself History screen with new Babble History icon circled.

  • When you touch the “Babble” section of the history, you’ll get a log of words that are NOT currently available in the vocabulary configuration. In other words, it gives you a list of words that had to be accessed by toggling Babble “on.”
  • It also tells you the main screen word and how many times those words in Babble have been used.

AND it gives you the ability to open those words directly from the History feature!

Turning Babble on and off is indicated in the History Data. If you are someone who emails the raw history data to yourself, the “Closed” words activated through Babble, are indicate in the CSV file with a (c) in the field. Here’s a screenshot:

A screenshot of the raw history data from Speak for Yourself. The (c) indicates that the word is closed and was activated in Babble.

So, how can Babble History help you?

Now that we’ve run through all of the technical information, let’s get back to the original goal…knowing what vocabulary we should add. Answering the “Where do I go from here?” question.

Our hope for this type of data is that it will give individuals using SfY a way to direct their own vocabulary growth. If a student is so motivated that they go into Babble multiple times to access a word, it’s a strong indication that the word should be opened.

Take a look at this example:

Sample of words in the Babble History of Speak for Yourself.

If this were my student, and I saw that (s)he accessed 6 vehicles, I would open all of those words and bring some vehicle-related activities to our next session. I would probably also open “THAT” and “YOU” since they were each used three times. Especially since there are not a lot of other words listed. This does not look like a sample from a student who has turned Babble on and slapped the screen with both hands. I mean, not like that happens or anything…;)

Of course, no programming solution is going to replace strong clinical instincts and knowledge of your child/client. Our goal is to discover and integrate tools that make it ¬†easier for you to be informed. When your job is easier, people using Speak for Yourself are more likely to be successful communicators. We want their voices to be strong and clear…and most importantly, THEIRS!

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