‘The difficult second word’- Moving from single words to forming phrases


Thomas Jefferson is famously quoted as saying, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do”- Wise words that I often try to remind myself of when I’m typing an overly wordy email!

However, most of the time, one word or even a short phrase is simply not enough to convey what we mean.

If you work with children who use AAC you will know that moving from single words to combining words is a big deal!! You know the way musicians talk about ‘the difficult second album’? I sometimes think of it in these terms when working with children who use AAC- ‘The difficult second word’..!

Some children get ‘stuck’ at the single word stage for quite some time. Communicating through single words is not only limiting but it also leaves our message open to misinterpretation.

I’ll give you an example- I work with a young girl who uses an eye-gaze communication aid and who happens to be a Justin Bieber fan (Who doesn’t love a bit of ‘Despacito’?!). It is not unusual to hear her announce, “Justin Bieber!” (2 words but 1 symbol!)


Now what does this mean? I model combining 2 symbols- “Are you telling me that you  ‘like‘ ‘Justin Bieber’? Or you ‘want‘ ‘Justin Bieber’ on YouTube?” Equally, it could mean, “Look, Justin Bieber just walked past!”

Implausible, yes, but one word can have multiple meanings!

So how do we move our children using AAC past single words on to the tricky concept of making phrases? Here are a few ideas to try!

– Core words are key

Quite frequently, children starting out using AAC will have a very ‘noun heavy’ vocabulary. That’s because requesting has possibly been their main function of communication.

Typically, the most frequently used words by verbal children are NOT nouns- They are modifiers (more, different, some), verbs (help, like, stop), pronouns (I, you, they), etc. These are what we think of as core words.

Core words are the words that we use again and again in a variety of contexts. Here is a lovely list compiled by AAC Language Lab of 100 important core words. This list combines the research of multiple authors, interested in the high frequency words of children:


The thing about core words is that they are often the foundation for forming a phrase. Have a look at the list and think of how many simple phrases you can make using these words alone! And then when you start to add in all those nouns that a child already knows, there are endless combinations of phrases that can be created and used in multiple contexts!

So when you are introducing an AAC system, don’t forget to always provide access to core words and constantly model their use!


This is a standard principle of language development; when a young, verbal child is learning to speak and they say a word such as “Car!”, an adult adds an extra word to model a phrase e.g “Yes, fast car!”

This principle is exactly the same for AAC users! The only modification is that we model this using their AAC device (this may be a high tech VOCA or a simple communication book).

The child points to “Cake” in their communication book and you then expand on this, adding an extra word, pointing to the symbols and saying, “Oh, ‘more’ ‘cake’!”

Repeated phrase structures


There are lots of set phrase structures that we use in the English language again and again e.g Person + Verb (“Joe is reading”). It makes sense that we introduce our AAC users to certain phrase structures, creating opportunities to use variations of a phrase multiple times in one activity.

Here are a few possible word combinations that can be targeted in motivational activities:

Person + ‘turn’– When playing a group game, give your child using AAC an important role- They have to tell the group whose turn it is using the person’s name + the word ‘turn’. This is a nice way to introduce word combinations as the word ‘turn’ remains the same each time, only the person’s name has to change! Also don’t forget to model ‘my turn’ and ‘your turn’, introducing pronouns.

– ‘More’ + artist’s name– Make a YouTube playlist of your child’s favourite songs. During each song, pause the track at least once. The child then has to request ‘more’ + the artist’s name. To expand on this, add a few songs that they can’t stand! Then you can work on ‘stop’ + artist’s name!

Person + verb-  Play an adapted version of ‘Simon Says’;  the child has to choose a person and then an action for them to perform. Most children particularly enjoy involving class staff in this game (e.g “Mrs Smith dance”)…! Class staff might not enjoy it as much but hey, it’s all in the name of communication!

Opinion + activity- Children like to talk about their hobbies…but even more than that, they like to give opinions! I tend to start with symbols for ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ and then introduce more specific opinion words such as ‘funny’, ‘boring’, ‘exciting’, etc. This idea works well as a group activity. Each child can choose an activity and then give an opinion e.g ‘Like swimming’, ‘Don’t like cooking’, etc.

– ‘Want’ + body part/clothes- A simple game to play with Mr Potato Head! e.g. “Want eyes”. Easy but effective!


Once a child has a solid bank of 2 word phrases, it won’t be long before they start experimenting with adding more words. They will have now established the concept of joining words together and you can continue to model how to expand things further.

In the world of music, the third album is never as difficult as the second…In the world of communication, once those second words become spontaneous, three and four word phrases shouldn’t be far behind!


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A Speech and Language Therapist in education settings for almost 10 years with a passion for writing.

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