Where to Start With Teaching Core Vocabulary

We all use core vocabulary in our daily lives. We say it, read it, think it… “How are you?” “I am good.” “I want to play a game.” “I need to eat lunch.” “I need to go potty.” These are phrases we say every day with basic words that just come naturally.

While those phrases may seem primitive and automatic in your daily social interactions, for some students with special needs, this is where we start: Core Vocabulary.

But where do you start? What words should you begin with and why?

Let’s start with planning…

The goal of utilizing core vocabulary instruction is to give your nonverbal and limited verbal ability students the ability to express themselves independently.

You want your instruction to be as methodical and as beneficial to your
students as possible. This is nothing new to you as a teacher. This is
how you plan all of your lessons, except when teaching core vocabulary
instruction, you need to be even more attentive to the needs of your

Determining which words to begin with can be challenging. If you Google Search core vocab lists, you’ll find lots of articles and other already developed word lists… which, honestly, is kind of overwhelming. You’ll notice that there is typically a lot of overlap in words from list to list (i.e., you’ll notice a high percentage of the same words on many lists).


To help you out and save you a little bit of time in the beginning, here is a list of suggested words that I have developed and used to begin with when implementing core vocabulary instruction.

While it really begins with the child and his or her motivation to learn, you also need to remember to make the instruction and the learning meaningful to the individual. If the child is not motivated to learn new vocabulary, s/he may become frustrated and the instruction may become more challenging for both the teacher and the student.

Tips to remember when beginning Core Vocabulary Instruction…

• The goal is not for the child to master the use of full sentences… in the beginning. You need to accept simple utterances, such as “I potty” or “want home” and interpret them in context.

• Communication is so much more than just words. There’s body language, gestures, facial expressions… and you need to accept those, too, as the child communicating with you. Core vocabulary instruction is not about making it more difficult for the student, it’s about making the child independent… and if the child can effectively communicate with you by pointing to the bathroom that s/he needs to use the potty, accept that as a form of communication. As the child works more with CV and becomes more comfortable and confident in their AAC, you can then move to having the child express himself in that form.

• As with any skill you teach a child, you want to generalize the learning and the instruction. When my students are learning new CV, they are given multiple opportunities to use their knowledge across settings… in the special needs classroom, at lunch, in the inclusive setting, at home, at therapy in and out of school… everywhere.

• You can’t just show a child a word and expect the child to learn it. You need to model and show the student what the word means… and what happens when they use that word. Reward them and give lots of praise! This is where highly rewarded activities work WONDERS with CV.

What tips do you have for starting with Core Vocabulary in the classroom or at home? Tell us in the comments below!


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