The Story of Word Lists

Published: 17/01/2020 19:33

Many of us have heard about core vocabulary. These 200-300 important words make up about 80% of what we say and include words like want, not, more, I, and, can, what, and the. However, there is another important set of words. It comprises a smaller percentage of what we say but includes millions of words that enable us to talk, clarify messages, and learn about our world.

A History of Fringe Vocabulary

In the world of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), this second set of words is commonly known as fringe vocabulary (van Tilborg & Deckers, 2016). Mein and O’Connor coined the terms core and fringe vocabulary in 1960 while studying the speech of children with severe developmental delays (Yorkston et al, 1988). Today, we may not use some fringe vocabulary from the 1960s. Likewise, some of our current fringe vocabulary would have been unknown in that era.


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But much of our fringe vocabulary has remained the same through the years.  It includes object names (such as foods and animals), actions, and describing words (like colors and sizes). Some words are used frequently while others (like photosynthesis or illustrator) are used only in specific instances.

Fringe Vocabulary in AAC

AAC tools have included fringe vocabulary from the beginning. In 1921, the first mass-produced communication board (the F. Hall Rowe communication board) included a few fringe words like the days of the week and important people. Since then, fringe vocabulary has expanded tremendously in low-tech and high-tech AAC tools with language packages on some AAC applications reaching into the thousands. Effective organization is the biggest challenge for fringe vocabulary.

Organizing Fringe Vocabulary

Fringe vocabulary must be organized for best use, so that an AAC user and his or her communication partners (see sidebar) can find it quickly and without too much instruction.

Why not organize it alphabetically? That works well for people with solid literacy skills. But what if you don’t know the first letter? How would you find one word among thousands?

There are several options for organizing fringe vocabulary. Each organizational strategy has its benefits and its challenges, as you can see from the table below.

Organizational Strategy




Examples: Actions, description, fruit, animals.

  • More transparent for partners with knowledge of categorization.
  •  Frequent vocabulary may be less accessible.

Frequency of Use

Examples:  Favorite foods at the top of the food list.

  • Improved access to vocabulary if frequency matches current needs.
  •  Less transparent for untrained partners.
  • Frequency can change with environment, age, or individual interest.
  • Word frequency may not vary significantly within a category.



  • More transparent for literate partners.
  • Exposure to literacy skills.
  •  Frequent vocabulary may be less accessible.
  • Less transparent for nonliterate users.


Examples:  Café words (e.g., coffee, seat, spill), zoo words (e.g., zebra, bench, snack).

  • More transparent for partners with knowledge of topics.
  •  Frequent vocabulary may be less accessible.


  • May address benefits and challenges of other approaches.
  •  Less transparent for untrained partners.


Examples:  Word length, color.

  • May improve vocabulary location.
  •  Less transparent for untrained partners.
  • Frequent vocabulary may be less accessible.

Fringe words are commonly organized into categories. The words in each category are then sorted alphabetically, by further categories (natural groupings), or by frequency of use.

Initial Fringe Vocabulary in Snap Core First

In Snap Core First, we organize fringe vocabulary in Word Lists. These words were gathered from research-based language lists, expert input (native speakers), and user feedback.  They are organized by category first, so they can be accessible to individuals with and without literacy skills. These categorical Word Lists include over 7,000 words that are appropriate to the language and culture. Within the categories, they are organized alphabetically and in natural groupings (e.g., days of the week together, opposites like big and little together). This organization is based on the performance and feedback of AAC users and partners during user testing, as well as our own focus on encouraging literacy skill development among those who use AAC.

The Continuing Story of Word Lists

Vocabulary access enables us to learn about the world by talking about it in many ways. But we must strike a balance between providing a large vocabulary of words and organizing it for efficient access. For our January 2020 release, we changed both the Words Lists organization and the number of words available in Snap Core First. These changes improve access efficiency while maintaining a robust vocabulary. The top levels are still organized by category. The lists then include smaller sets of words that are presented by frequency of use, helping users to locate their words more quickly. Smaller sets of words also encourage communication partners to show and teach AAC skills, including:

  • Strategic skills – description, sounds like.
  • Literacy skills - invented spelling, providing the first letter.

These skills will ultimately benefit AAC users when they need to use words that are not available.

While we can’t put every word in an AAC system, our goal is to provide the most important ones in our Word Lists. After all, fringe words may make up only about 20% of what we say, but they offer AAC users a way to communicate precisely what they want.


Story of Word Lists Podcast

Click here to listen to an interview with Bethany Diener from our clinical content team. Lisa and Bethany discuss the purpose of fringe vocabulary and how it is organized within the Word Lists of Snap Core First.




Mein, R., & O’Connor, N. (1960). A study of the oral vocabularies of severely subnormal patients. Journal of Mental Deficiency Research, 4, 130-143.

van Tilborg, A. & Deckers, S. (2016). Vocabulary selection in AAC: Application of core vocabulary in atypical populations. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups SIG 12, 1, 125-138.

Yorkston, K., Dowden, P., Honsinger, M., Marriner, N. & Smith, K. (1988). A comparison of standard and user vocabulary lists. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 2, 189–210.

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