Toys and Activities to Target Core Vocabulary

Core vocabulary is an evidenced-based set of words particularly useful for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) users. I’ve personally seen huge growth in expressive language skills of AAC users after only a few therapy sessions of instruction with core words. Core words are what make up 80% of our everyday utterances.  The power of core words lies within how versatile just one word can be in a variety of contexts. However, finding new and different ways to teach the use of core vocabulary is sometimes daunting. Here are some of the ways I’ve found success in teaching and encouraging carryover of five of my favorite core words. I’ll help you go beyond using “want“.


*This post contains affiliate links.

(In this post I’m going to first list the core word then show you the toys I use to target it. I will also list some phrases in which to use the word to expand utterances.)


In my opinion, “put” is one of the most valuable, under-utilized core words – especially for the younger population!  I work with preschoolers and at that age they love being “busy”. Moving toys from one place to another, dumping containers, etc.

Pop up Pirate: “put” the swords into the barrel. Student must say what he’s going to do with the sword before being able to. (Also great for requesting what color sword he wants, if able.)

     Phrase options: “put in”, “put it in”,”put more in”, “put in(color)”, “I put”, “you put”
Pop the Pig: “put” the hamburgers into the pig’s mouth. (Same as Pop up Pirate.) *Can also use to target “eat” in a context other than the student eating!*

     Phrase options: “put in”, “put it in”,”put more in”, “put in (color)”, “I put”, “you put”

piggy bank: Fisher Price makes this toy and my kids LOVE it!  It makes adorable noises every time you “put” a coin in the pig’s slot.  It’s also very easy to occlude both the slot and the door from opening with one hand, in order to sabotage the situation and “force” a student to use his/her words!  “Put” the money into the pig.

     Phrase options: “put in”, “put it in”,”put more in”, “put in(color)”

weather bear/interactive books: I have these adorable books from Panda Speech on TpT. (I also have the Santa one!)

I’ve been using this book all winter long and the kids don’t ever get bored of “put”-ing the clothes on the bear.  Each article of clothing he wears is another trial to tell you that she wants to “put” the item on the bear. Click the picture below to have a closer look at this interactive book!Bear is Cold

You can also use a “weather bear” or “weather frog” bulletin board set or even a doll.

     Phrase options: “put on”, “put it on”, “put on that”, “put on (body part)”

crafts: “put” glue on the paper, “put” the shape onto the picture, “put” the glitter on, “put” the craft on the wall when it’s finished. Every step of a craft you’re putting something somewhere. Take advantage and get lots of trials!

play food: Melissa and Doug toys has a ton of variations of toys that have “embellishments”. Icing on a doughnut, candles onto a cake, etc. While playing “put” the pieces on each toy.  I also have this great set of cupcakes whose icing comes off.  I got it at CVS for $5! (The icing is a pain the the butt to get off, so kids ALWAYS need to request help.)

Phrase options: “put in/on”, “put it in/on”,”put more in/on”, “put in/on (color)”, “put on that”, “put on (body part)”, “I put”, “you put”


spinning top: This spinning top is perhaps my absolute favorite therapy toy. All ages love it and few ages can actually work it independently 😉 Children must request that it “go” and describe that it “STOPped”.

     Phrase options: “top go”, “go more”, “it go”, “it stop”

wind-up toys: The same appeal of the spinning top is true for wind-up toys.

cars: Use any type of vehicle on any type of surface: road rugs, ramps, the floor, etc.

     Phrase options: “car go”, “go more”, “it go”, “it stop”, “car stop”

taking turns: Every game that involves turn-taking is an opportunity to model or require the word “go”.

     Phrase options: “I go”, “you go”, “me go”, “he/she go” (you get the idea…)

transitioning: Even if your student wasn’t enthralled with your activity that day, there’s an opportunity to use the word “go” when it’s time to leave speech.  Or when it’s time to “go” to speech!  (Or go to music, PT, art, etc…)

     Phrase options: “I go Speech”, “we go”, “go to PT”



CD player/youtube videos: Does your student have a favorite song or show?  Play it on your iPad randomly, but keep it out of sight and wait for his/her eyes to light up. Model “hear” and then show the video!  Stop it and wait for the student to request to “hear” music again!

     Phrase options: “I hear it”, “hear music”, “I want hear”, “I want hear it”

outside stimuli: I realized this when the classroom that adjoins mine had a music presentation that involved a bass.  When that instrument bellows next door, even the grumpiest students perk up! You can also talk about hearing familiar people in the hall – maybe his/her teacher or friend happens to be walking by.  Take advantage of the teachable moment that would have otherwise been a disturbance!


spinning top: The beauty of a spinning top is that most students can’t get it to work on their own.  They need your assistance! In order to get the top to spin, you put the handle in it, then “turn” it!  The student must tell you to do so.  I usually give my top three turns, so that’s three trials of the word!

     Phrase options: “you turn”, “turn it”, “turn please”, “help turn”

wind-up toys: The same is true for wind-up toys. Some children need your assistance to turn the handle in order to make it go. Saying they “want” the toy is great.  Give it to them. Then, when they can’t work it and hand it back to you, they must request that you “turn” the handle for them.

     Phrase options: “you turn”, “turn it”, “turn please”, “help turn”

books: Another great use for interactive books (or any motivating book) is that the student must tell you to “turn” the page.  The dialogue often goes like this in my sessions:

SLP: “Ok, that page is finished.  Now what do we do?”

Child: “Turn”

     Phrase options: “you turn”, “turn it”, “turn page”, “turn book”

taking turns: Any game where you take turns, including the ones listed above, can also be used to elicit “turn”, as in “my turn”.

     Phrase options: “your turn”, “my turn”

latches: I use this Melissa and Doug barn, however, you could use anything similar that has latches that turn. This, again, is a rather difficult door to open for little hands, therefore requiring adult assistance.

*Another tip for focusing on a core word is to use a sticky flag, like the one pictures above.  It’s a visual cue for where to point, rather than your own finger. You can also use fun Washi tape , bright duct tape, or even painter’s tape to surround and highlight the word(s) you’re targeting. You can find the core vocabulary board pictured above here or click the photo below.



Pop Up Pirate/Pop the Pig: The appeal of these games is the popping. Instead of just waiting for the big finish, talk about it and build some anticipation as you play! After each turn ask, “Did he pop?” This is a great way to teaching responding to concrete yes/no questions, other than, “Do you want…?”

Phrase options: “no go”

Cariboo: Each time a door is opened or a ball is placed in the blue hole is a fantastic time to ask, “Is there a ball in there?” or, “Did the treasure chest open?”

Phrase options: “no ball”, “yes ball”, “no open”, “yes open”.


I hope these tricks will give you some fresh therapy ideas to use with your AAC users or even those who are verbal. Thanks for reading!



  1. Monica says

    By the way.. I inherited the pig toy as I’m in a new classroom, but don’t know how to work it. Does it take batteries? If so what size.

    • says

      No batteries needed! You feed it the hamburgers and push its head based on the number on the bottom of the burger. After her pops,make it skinny again by pushing his head again!

  2. Larissa says

    This had some new ideas. Really appreciate for taking the time to share it! I’m from Sri Lanka and I would like to know whether I can purchase the wind-up toys from amazon?

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