Building receptive vocabulary in complex communicators

It’s one of those “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” situations: children with complex communication needs tend to miss out on opportunities to increase their vocabularies compared to typical peers. Then, as we know, that disadvantage can snowball over time, contributing to reduced comprehension and literacy skills, which limits vocabulary growth even more. A vicious cycle for sure. So what can we do to support our young complex communicators in learning new words, especially academic vocabulary?


In this new study, Yorke and colleagues found that direct instruction during shared book reading was a potentially* effective way to teach academic vocabulary to a trio of preschool-aged boys with various disabilities who used forms of AAC to communicate. If you’re wondering what counts as academic vocabulary for the preschool crowd, the experimenters focused on animal names, but note that the same intervention approach could potentially be used to teach all kinds of concepts.

Shared book reading is a great context for teaching words, for a lot of reasons. You’re sitting still (ish? Depends on the kid!), may have long periods of joint attention, and can focus on communication without lots of extra materials in the way. Plus, you, as the instructor, know what vocabulary you’re going to encounter, so you have a chance to find or pre-program the words in the child’s AAC system, if needed. But reading alone isn’t enough: we know that kids learn best when direct teaching elements (i.e., introducing the task, providing modeling, supported practice, and independent practice) are part of the process.

The authors targeted five words (animal names, previously unknown to the kids) in each of two nonfiction books. (Pro tip: they found earlier that teaching 10 items at a time was too many.) They used a scripted intervention plan, with all those excellent direct teaching pieces mentioned above. The paper’s Appendix walks you through all the steps of the intervention, complete with sample scripts for what to say, and explicitly describes the steps to decrease scaffolding during practice. They probed for understanding of the words using pictures from the book on a 2 x 2 grid (think of the PPVT—one target answer and three foils).

Basically, they did some really solid vocab instruction, and paired it with testing methods that don’t require a verbal response. The children in the study were all able to point to pictures, but a logical extension would be using an eye-gaze frame for kids who are limited in their motor abilities.

The children in the study learned the first set of words in 10–12 sessions (15 to 20 minutes each, done about three times per week), but that time was cut in half for the second set of words, showing that kids may learn how to learn words this way more effectively over time. They maintained their knowledge well over 4–6 weeks, and were able to generalize to new pictures of the same animals.

Need a bonus? During shared reading, kids are getting exposure to lots of language and early literacy concepts, in addition to the words you’re explicitly targeting. Efficient use of your all-too-brief intervention time! And although this study was done one-on-one, the authors note that you could try the same approach in a group setting, with the help of classroom staff if needed.


*The quality of the experimental design was compromised when the authors had to eliminate a planned third book/set of words from the study. Ideally, we want to see a treatment effect three times (so here, with three sets of vocabulary) to feel confident that it was effective; in this case, we only could see it two times.

Yorke, A. M., Light, J. C., Gosnell Caron, J., McNaughton, D. B., & Drager, K. D. R. (2018). The effects of explicit instruction in academic vocabulary during shared book reading on the receptive vocabulary of children with complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/07434618.2018.1506823.