Get from Single Words to Sentences using Core Words (Part I)

Parents often worry about their child’s lack of spontaneous communication.

They call and tell me they are concerned: their child is able to request but they are only using single words(e.g. “cookie” or “iPad”).

I started seeing a child a few weeks ago who was stuck in the “I want” phrase, unable to say anything else. Mom was trying to teach her basic verbs (e.g. “eating, running, drinking,”) but she was adding the “I want” phrase to EVERYTHING so that when she was putting words together and it didn't always make sense.  

For example, I showed her a picture of a child running and asked “What is she doing?”. She replied by saying,  “I want running”. This was a learned behavior: Put “I want” in front of every word.

When children reach a plateau like this, and are unable to put words together into phrases or sentences, this is always when I start thinking CORE WORDS.

So what are core words?

Core words are commonly used words that are useful in a variety of situations. They aren’t just nouns; they can be adjectives, verbs, prepositions … words that are high frequency, highly combinable, and used all the time.

Core words comprise 75 - 80% of the words in our day-to-day speech. 

The other side of the coin is what we call “fringe” words. Fringe words tend to be more specific to a situation, and are usually nouns.

They might be something like “elephant”, or “ice cream”. Great words to learn, but not necessarily useful every day in every scenario.

I have a child on my caseload who LOVES stoplights. Every day he loves to talks to me about stoplights. The word “stoplight” is a fringe word that he can’t get enough of.

The problem is there are so many fringe words and just not enough time to teach them. Unless the fringe word is incredibly meaningful to the child, it’s more efficient to focus on teaching core words simply because they can get a lot more use out of them.

I love to get kids started on core words like “eat” and “go” and “play” because you can use them in so many different situations. If we were at the zoo we might talk about the fringe word “elephant," but if the child knew the core word “go,” then we could use at the zoo, at school, at the playground…. the possibilities are endless. 

Core words simply give you more bang for your buck.

However, fringe words are still a good place to start

For children who are just beginning to communicate I always start with highly motivating fringe words. Fringe words are basic and very concrete. If your child loves to play with trains, helping them say “train” or teaching them to touch a picture of a “train” is very straightforward.

Remember: Choose words that are motivating for your child. For some kids it’s food, for others it’s their favorite toy. Some of my kids are most motivated by sensory games, so I focus on words like “squeeze” or “tickle”.

It’s important for children to understand they must communicate in order to get what they want. That means teaching them to try to say a word, activate a button on their device, or point to a picture on a communication board (download a free copy of mine here).

But fringe words aren’t the whole story

The problem is that most people focus on fringe words – i.e. nouns only - expecting the child to make the intuitive leap to sentences, but often they can’t do it.  Try making a sentence with all fringe words... you won't get very far. 

Some therapists begin teaching sentence building by helping the child to say “I want” or "Give me" in front of a fringe word. At first this seems like a reasonable approach, since they are building a sentence that makes sense in that context.

Unfortunately, this “I want” can become a learned behavior, as I illustrated in the example above where a child uses the “I want” phrase for everything. Our goal is to help children create spontaneous and novel sentences, not to simply memorize a formula. And once children learn this behavior, it can be very difficult to unlearn.

In fact, “I” and “want” are both core words, but it’s important to teach them individually, rather than as a unit, if you want to encourage spontaneity.

How to get started with core words

In my next post (sign up to my mailing list here to make sure you’re first in line to get it!), I’ll share my four best tips for working with core words.

But here’s some advice to get you started: two great core words to try are “eat” and “play”.

These core words are so easy to use in any situation and you can easily pair them with fringe words your child already knows.

Remember: It will likely take your child some time and LOTS of modeling to understand core words, since they are more abstract.

You’ll find that children might get confused at first with core words and say things like “eat ball”. If this happens, don't worry. Simply respond by saying “We don’t eat a ball, we play ball.” 

With lots of exposure to these new words,  children start differentiating between the categories of things we eat versus things we play with and eventually they will start understanding.

Over to you

Does your child struggle with spontaneous communication? Do they seems to be stuck in fringe words? Let me know what you’re finding difficult in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!


I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

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