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The Dynamic Duo of Core and Fringe

Relationships are reciprocal. Regardless of how powerful and dynamic something may be, support is necessary to build a solid structure on an existing foundation that can withstand anything that comes its way. Such support often comes from the counterpart in the relationship, or the dynamic duo. Core vocabulary is no different.

Core vocabulary is one half of the dynamic duo.

  • It is the foundation of robust language systems that are housed in AAC devices.

  • Core vocabulary compromises approximately 78% of the words that people use every day and include vocabulary from all word groups, such as verbs, adverbs, nouns, question words, interjections, pronouns, helping verbs, prepositions, determiners, and conjunctions (Soto & Zangari, 2009).

  • Core words are dynamic and robust as they are functional and applicable for all activities, places, topics, populations, and demographics (Soto & Zangari, 2009).

Core vocabulary holds the key to unveiling the skills necessary for communicators to communicate and actively participate in all activities and areas of life due to its robust and dynamic nature. Thus, why there is a great amount of emphasis on core vocabulary in the AAC field.

  • It can fulfill all four of the communicative functions, which include expressing wants and needs, transferring information, establishing and maintaining social closeness, and displaying appropriate social etiquette (Beukelman & Light, 2020).

  • Once core words are initially introduced to communicators and they have been exposed to them through consistent modeling in familiar contexts and routines, generalization of their functional use by the communicator in additional activities contexts should be the subsequent goal.

Fringe vocabulary is the other half of the dynamic duo.

  • Fringe vocabulary is often located in the deeper pages of robust language systems that are housed in AAC systems (Soto & Zangari, 2009).

  • Fringe vocabulary adds meat to the core word-based utterance and compromises approximately 22% of the words that people use every day.

  • Fringe words are content, topic, and communicator-specific and thus, often need to be added to the communicator’s AAC system as it is subjective (Soto & Zangari, 2009).

Fringe vocabulary complements and adds fluff to core vocabulary in utterances. It is often unnecessary to fulfil all, if any, of the five communicative functions, which is why there is not as much emphasis on it as there is on core vocabulary.

  • Fringe vocabulary is primarily nouns which are typically used to “name” or “label” objects, which is not a functional skill and does not fall under any of the communicative functions.

But should fringe vocabulary be neglected in the AAC implementation process?

  • No! Fringe vocabulary cannot be forgotten in the AAC implementation process. It provides communicators with the ability to talk about specific topics, subject areas, interests, and knowledge domains (Soto & Zangari, 2009). When core vocabulary and fringe vocabulary are paired together and communicators are taught and supported to use both, robust functional communication skills develop.

In fact, fringe vocabulary has similar benefits to communicators as core vocabulary does.

  • Core vocabulary and fringe vocabulary enhance the development of oral and written language. One cannot effectively and efficiently write and/or communicate about any given topic without using core vocabulary and fringe vocabulary.

The AAC Ability Level Continuum (Clarke & Schneider, 2015) consists of five levels which describe skills of communicators (emergent, emergent transitional, context-dependent, transitional independent, and independent) and each level considers the linguistic competency, operational competency, social competency, and strategic competency of the communicator.

  • Linguistic competency for independent communicators has goals in which the communicator can generate novel utterances of three or more words, use existing vocabulary to explain a concept or word that is not programmed in the AAC system, compose compound and complex sentences, among a few other goals (Soto & Zangari, 2009). While every communicator has a unique highest potential, all communicators can develop into independent communicators if given adequate support and opportunity.

For communicators to become independent communicators and achieve the goals outlined by the level in the AAC Ability Level Continuum, they must be able to functionally use core vocabulary and fringe vocabulary simultaneously.

  • The generation of novel utterances consisting of three or more words, the use of existing vocabulary to explain a concept or word that is not programmed in the AAC system, and the generation of compound and complex sentences requires core vocabulary and fringe vocabulary to be strung and used together...because they are a dynamic duo!

It is crucial to model and encourage exploration of language that is one step ahead of the communicator’s current language level as they develop skills and progress through the five ability levels.

  • This means using core and fringe vocabulary together to grow their language skills so that they can generate compound, complex, and novel utterances about any and all specific topics, subject areas, and personal interests.

Core vocabulary is robust, but it is only one half of the dynamic duo that gives AAC communicators the ability to generate novel, complex, and compound utterances necessary to become independent communicators. Fringe vocabulary is core vocabulary’s dynamic duo counterpart. It adds fuel to core vocabulary when used together to provide communicators to communicate about everything and anything that they want to and need to.

  • Model and explore use of fringe vocabulary in appropriate contexts throughout the AAC implementation process.

  • Let core vocabulary and fringe vocabulary support each other and be the dynamic duo that they are meant to be!


  • Beukelman, D. R., & Light, J. C. (2020). Augmentative & Alternative Communication: Supporting Children and Adults with Complex Communication Needs. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

  • Clarke, V., & Schneider, D. (2015). Dynamic AAC Goals Grid-2 (DAGG-2) for Tobii Dynavox.

  • Soto, G., & Zangari, C. (2009). Practically Speaking: Language, Literacy, and Academic Development for Students with AAC Needs (1st ed.). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

Hannah Foley, B.A. is the Content Writer at Forbes AAC. She has over four years of experience in AAC education and implementation, in addition to over 24 years of personal experience using AAC and AT tools to navigate society as someone who has a (dis)ability. Hannah is dedicated to providing quality training and implementation resources to support teams to facilitate the integration of AAC into all of life's activities to maximize the communicative skill development and meaningful engagement of those who use AAC.

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