Noun Lover: An AAC Update


A page in a Richard Scarry book. Four pigs are baking, and around them are labeled objects: sugar bowl, spatula, rolling pin, etc.

I’ve always loved nouns. As a kid, I loved the Richard Scarry books that name every freaking noun on a page. I loved putting my finger on the objects—comb, brush, bowl—and saying the nouns. I love the lines in Genesis where Adam gets to name all the nouns—lucky duck—in his Edenic world. I loved dreaming up names for my hypothetical kids long before I had kids, (Oh Scholastica, how bookish you would have been, oh Elise, how ethereal and light-footed, oh Benedict, how you would have loved eggs, oh Rowan, how long your eyebrows would have become in old age.) I now like dreaming up names for my hypothetical pets, which I will not acquire because I’m completely tapped out from caring for two very beloved but demanding Proper Nouns.


Fiona is standing in front of a water table, walking toward the camera. Petra is standing at the side of the water table, also looking straight at the camera. They’re book wearing straw hats, and I’m told they look vaguely like Depression-era farmers.

It appears that Fiona loves nouns too. I’ve noticed this. I’ve noticed that, on her talker, Fiona will almost exclusively say nouns. What did you do at school? my husband and I might ask, and she will hit nouns on her talker. Names of teachers. Names of kids. Coat. Hat. Sandbox.

The other day, in response to my question about her school day, Fiona offered the following three icons on her talker: Deborah*. Computer. Old McDonald Had a Farm.

We shrugged. Deborah is Fiona’s PT. But we had no idea what Fiona meant by this string of words… until weeks later, when we met with Fiona’s PT. She told us that Fiona is motivated to do therapy exercises if she gets to watch Old McDonald Had a Farm on a tablet or computer or something.

Ah-hah! My face lit up in recognition. I now had an idea of Fiona’s earlier thought. Perhaps: Deborah showed me Old McDonald Had a Farm on a computer.

Fiona’s devotion to nouns seems to be at the expense of other words. On her talker, she uses zero pronouns or adjectives, and only a few prepositions (down, up) and verbs (eat, play, and, if I push her, want.) Here are some nouns Fiona will say throughout the day: Cheese. Park. Super Simple Songs. Apple. Petra. Mom. Sausage. Dad. Grammy. Friend. Sandbox. Elmo. Picture Schedule. The Blessed Virgin Mary.

Out of context, I have zero idea what she means by these words (particularly the latter which, although a delight to her priest father, seems to be apropos of nothing.) Without verbs or prepositions, nouns can’t really communicate a thought. So I often guess.

Fiona says: cheese stick.

I say: You want cheese stick?

She nods.

I get a cheese stick.

If you’re an AAC user, teacher, or parent, you might notice I made an error in the above scenario. In fact, the error I made above is partly (largely? entirely?) responsible for Fiona’s noun adoration. What was that error? {Insert Jeopardy music here.}

I assumed Fiona wanted a cheese stick. I assumed Fiona wanted a cheese stick. See what I’m saying? I took her noun and filled in a complete thought.

The whole reason my husband and I chose a robust communication system like Speak For Yourself is so that Fiona is not limited simply to requests. She can say she likes cheese sticks. She can ask, Where are the cheese sticks? She can say, No more cheese sticks from Aldi because they are gross.

But I assumed she’d made a request. And because I’m her mom and I’m brilliant at the job, the best she’s ever had, and because my kid shoves cheese sticks into her mouth like all dairy will be discontinued any day, I am most likely right. Whenever Fiona says “cheese stick” she’s probably requesting it. But treating all her nouns as requests makes her noun-dependent. It also makes far too many assumptions.

I’m apparently not the only person in Fiona’s world who’s been doing this. Fiona’s preschool invites an AAC consultant, Ann*, to observe Fiona and advise the staff on AAC implementation strategies. Ann noticed that the staff was also treating Fiona’s nouns as requests. Ann relayed this during my meeting with her, and I nodded, admitting I was guilty of it too.

“How can I help her use more than nouns?” I asked Ann. “Especially during the summer, when she has no speech therapy?

Ann gave me a plan. The first strategy is simple. The adults around Fiona, including me, need to stop treating her nouns as requests. I already knew this, but in the chaos of life, I’ve been forgetting. So I’m buckling down. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

Fiona says: Cheese stick.

I pause, looking at her expectantly.

Usually she says nothing, so I say: I wonder what you’re thinking about cheese stick. (Notice it’s not a question. It’s an “I wonder…” statement.)

She says: Want.

I say: Oh! Want cheese stick… Who wants a cheese stick?

She points to her chest and squeals out a close-mouthed Me, which sounds like mm!

I say: Oh. You want a cheese stick. (Then I tap out on her talker: “I. Want. Cheese stick.”)

The second strategy: When I model words on the talker, I stop using most nouns. Instead of nouns, I use “It” and “That.” Speak For Yourself is designed on the idea that 80% of our daily vocabulary is comprised of the same words.


Speak For Yourself’s main home page. 120 rectangles are displayed, 8 rows of 15. Each has a picture and a word.

AAC experts call these “Core Words.” The app’s home page contains 119 core words, the most used words in the English language. I. Want. You. Please. Help. Me. Stop. Get. Off. You get the point. Pretty powerful words! The nouns Fiona likes all fall into that other 20%–specialty words that aren’t frequently used. It and That are core words. So when Fiona points to something on a table, instead of naming it on the talker (sandwich, marker, Blessed Virgin Mother), I will hit “That.” Then I’ll say, “I wonder what you’re thinking about That.”

In other words, the noun-lover in me will have to take a backseat. Adam needs to stop naming all the flowers in the garden and start working on his dance moves. Without actions, we have no Michael Jackson moonwalk.

The final strategy: I will target 12 words for the summer. Five verbs, five descriptors of some kind, and 2 question words. I will focus on these words all summer long. I will model them. I will provide Fiona with plenty of opportunities to use them. In other words (no pun intended) I get to make my daughter’s AAC curriculum for the summer. I’m still in the process of deciding.


Ahh, the word-lover in me is scrutinizing with delight, having a field day, determining the most useful words for Fee. I’m dreaming of days when she says, not just Mom, but Like Mom. Not just Elmo but Want Elmo. It’s a totally reachable goal. What’s held her back has partly been me, and the way I’ve been teaching her. But that’s okay. Onward to summer.


Fiona in a bucket swing, smiling. Her dirty blond hair is blowing lightly away from her face. Her blue eyes look right at the camera.

*Name changed




13 thoughts on “Noun Lover: An AAC Update

  1. I say don’t be too hard on yourself on this one. With our children who are speaking mostly in nouns (I have one too), perhaps we need to remember that this is a developmentally natural stage to go through, and we are responding in the most natural way a parent can respond. Interpreting their single nouns into the most logical sentence based on what we know about them. It’s just what we do. And you know why? Because the alternative is often a scenario something like this:
    C: Ball pit. (for the one millionth time)
    Me (picture a controlled but frustrated tone of voice here): I hear you saying ball pit again – do you WANT to GO to the ball pit? Are you THINKING about the ball pit? Do you SEE a ball pit?
    C: Ball pit. (1,000,001st time)
    However, it does shift. Veeerrrry slowly, but it does. I am starting to get ‘Ball pit. Go’ and other gems of combinations. Not on the talker, but we’re working on it. I am going to follow your lead with picking some focused vocab targets this summer.
    Thanks for the inspiration!!

  2. This is exactly where we are! And unfortunately we’re just beginning to use our talker. My goal is two action words (go and play probably) until she’ll use them more regularly. We have speech and AAC consult this summer, so hopefully we can make some progress! Good luck!

  3. Sometimes in the discussion about “core” and “fringe” words folks begin to imagine it’s more like “core” VERSUS “fringe” words, and start to think that fringe words are somehow less valuable. Like most things, it’s more about getting a balance between the two. A strategy to try is to think of those low frequency fringe words as “anchors” around which we can wrap the higher frequency core words. In this way we use the fringe to teach the core, and those lovely nouns get to come out and play with all the other parts of speech 😉 You can check out my brief posting on core, fringe, and anchors here if you’re curious:

    • Heather, You are a beautiful Mom! Love reading about Fee and your Family. Have known your In laws for 45 + years.( Brenda Hazelgrove for 50 +years). Our third Grand Daughter Morgan has Rett Syndrome (18 months). Your stories give us positive strength to carry on with Morgan being the best she can be.
      God Bless you and your Family, prayers are with you all.
      Kate Wilhelm

  4. To my daughter, every object is “duck.” I find myself wondering how she’ll navigate the world if this is her only vocabulary. She will be able to order fine (if fatty) fowl, and she will be able to warn others to take cover. In a world where you only had one word–that could function as both a verb and a noun–what word might be most useful, I wonder.

  5. Great Job Mama! Keep up the good work. I really appreciated reading this today.
    PS I dont like aldi cheese sticks either

  6. Hi Heather, Can I ask how you went about getting the AAC for Fiona? Our son is in about the same place, and the school system is saying they want unprompted 4-word sentences before they switch from the 16-cell to an iPad. It always seemed a little ridiculous; it seems even more ridiculous since I saw this post and heard you on the One in a Million podcast. I want to give Sam the same kind of voice Fiona has.

    Thanks for any help or guidance.

    • Elisabeth, Wow. As far as I know, the school system is giving you incredibly bad advice. It’s outdated, antiquated, and wrong. He should have as much language as any child has access to. He shouldn’t have to *prove* his readiness for a robust communications system. I could point you in the direction of experts who disagree with your school, but you might start with this blog:
      Good luck! And let me know if I can help in any other way. I’ve written a few posts about our AAC journey. Feel free to follow them. They are called “Presuming Competence,” “A Year with Speak For Yourself, Part 1,” and “A Year with Speak for Yourself, Part 2.” If you google those phrases along with “Star in Her Eye,” you should find them. Onward! Heather

      • Thanks. I think the school policy is a budget issue more than anything, but it makes me angry that we lost a year or more of real communication waiting for him to be “ready” based on outdated views. We got some recommendations on local AAC consultants from our speech therapist, and we’re going to push forward on that with your links as backup/inspiration.

        Sam’s also starting kindergarten next month, by the way. He doesn’t have Wolf-Hirschorn (different rare genetic issue), but I heard a lot that’s also true of his personality when you were describing Fiona on the podcast. Made me check out your blog, and I’m so glad I did!

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