Core Vocabulary in the SPED Classroom

Core Vocabulary. It’s such an important aspect of any classroom, especially in a special needs classroom. Communication is a natural part of life, and it’s how living things communicate wants and needs.

But what if you’re unable to communicate verbally? Imagine you’re 4 years old, and you have no other outlet to tell your parents how much your belly hurts… or that you don’t like green beans, that you want french fries… or the reason you had a tough day at preschool.

Sure, our students and children do find ways to communicate with us using body language and facial expressions. But it’s not enough… and you, as an educator or parent, should never feel as though that’s enough.

core vocabulary in a special education classroom - blog header

But where should you start? I mean, that’s probably what you’re thinking, right? How do I get started… what do I use… or maybe you’re curious about how you introduce the skill… what words do you start with… how long is it going to take before my student is communicating basic wants and needs independently?

Those are all very important questions and very valid concerns. To learn more about where to start with core vocabulary, read this blog post.

Short version: Core Vocabulary are the words that we use every single day to communicate, and the goal of utilizing core vocabulary instruction is to give your nonverbal and limited verbal ability students the ability to express themselves independently.

core board for a special education classroom core vocab. this teach loves speech mrs ds corner

This is an example of a Core Board that one of my friends uses in her classroom. Ashley (This Teach Loves Speech) is, in my eyes, the queen of Core Vocabulary and I always look to her for advice on implementing more CV into my classroom.

The Core Boards in my classroom look very similar, except they are in binders and not bound. It has tabs at the top for the student to flip through when the child wants to talk about emotions, colors, people, time, etc. The main vocabulary is on the big paper. I keep a line of Velcro at the bottom too (where the binder part sticks out).

Why do I keep a line of Velcro on the bottom binder, underneath of the main Core Vocab sheet? Because behind the child’s Core Board (CB), the child has icons of preferred activities. The student can take off the preferred activity and put it on the main CB to tell me exactly what he or she wants to do.

Now this was a second or third stage of utilizing this child’s CB, so it didn’t start out this way.

When we began implementing core vocabulary boards in our classroom, I taught and modeled through explicit communication instruction how to use the CB and where all of the words are. The speech therapist helped as well during speech times.

I love this large interactive core board that Ashley has in her classroom because she can use it for so many different lessons and teachable moments, small group or whole group. To make one for our classroom, have your regular core board printed as a poster twice, laminate both, and use one to velcro the core words onto the mat.

core board for a special education classroom core vocab. this teach loves speech mrs ds corner

Ashley, also, carries around mini core boards on her teacher lanyard.

For core vocab activities, you will find these two blog posts helpful:

mini core vocabulary boards for your meeting tables in special ed classrooms

Outside of using AAC devices and core vocab binders, which can honestly be cumbersome and technology isn’t always reliable, these devices and binders can potentially get in the way during a lesson… and we can’t just take them away (our students need to communicate!).

Image 7 nonverbal students sitting at a kidney bean table during a whole group lesson, all have AAC devices, and this is a craft lesson… so you’ve got markers, construction paper, glue… it’s all on the table. With the AAC devices.

Enter Mini Core Board Strips.

These are our classroom solution to still utilizing our core vocabulary and communicating during lessons (small group and whole group), in a way that is functional for all parties by reducing the bulk of a communication or device when you have limited space.


In addition to having individual student Core Boards, I put up these classroom CBs in our classroom, as well as in the inclusion and resource rooms, and all specials (P.E., music, art, library). They are displayed right by the classroom doors.

When a child leaves the classroom, he or she needs to tell the para or teacher where s/he is going by saying, “I” “go” “to” “class” or “I” “go” “outside.” It’s simple, but it gets them talking and used to using a CB.

The icons are all in the same place as on the individual CBs, but these modified boards really focus in on the specific vocabulary they need to utilize to tell adults where they are going.

You can find similar Core Boards or make your own, using the Boardmaker Online Community. I’m not affiliated with them, I just find the portal very useful and I like the icon options (they’re always adding new ones too!)


One of my favorite parts of implementing Core Vocabulary has been the check in and check out center in our classroom.

It’s in the back of our classroom, out of the way of students putting their books away in the morning or packing up to go home. Students don’t ever go in these cabinets, so to them it’s an area where they only need to be to check in or check out.

To make this area, all I did was laminate a couple of our classroom core boards… again, with only the vocabulary we need on the board to check in or check out. I printed bulletin board letters and a sun and moon clip art that I had, along with a Melonheadz graphic that looks like each of my students (you could use actual pictures of students too!) For the pockets, I use these library pockets.

In the morning, students have to say “I” “am” “here” and move their kidlette to the check in slot. Each student has their own slot for check in and check out, so it’s easy for me to look at to do attendance.

At the end of each day, students move their kidlette to the check out slot and say “I” “go” “home” or “I” “go” “to” “bus.”

It’s a really great way to start the day, because it puts the students mind in work mode (read about the rest of our morning routine here)… and a really great way to end the day, because my students know once they check out, it’s time to go home.

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core vocabulary word wall starter kit

My suggestion to you, as you are implementing AAC devices and core vocabulary, use them in multiple areas of your classroom. Expose students to more and more words, expand their vocabularies.

In our classroom, we have a Core Vocabulary word wall with lots and lots of words on it. You can learn more about our word wall in this blog post.

What AAC devices do you have in your classroom? Tell us about them in the comments below! If you’re not sure which type AAC devices will work best in your classroom, take a look here to get started!

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