Words and phrases

To teach your learner different words, most people currently focus on teaching them a few at a time rather than just one.

Here we describe techniques, opportunities, and pitfalls in modeling particular words or phrases. This is a constantly improving base of knowledge that comes from surveys of over a dozen individuals who have been successful at teaching their learners to use recordable sound buttons.

Since different people use different words to mean roughly the same thing, we use ALL CAPS to refer to the concept rather than the specific word. For instance, if you speak Dutch to your learner, you probably aren't going to use English words on your word board. Further, by marking the concepts in capital letters, we're trying to make clear that your learner's sense of what a word means may be quite different from your own. For example, FOOD, at least when first introduced, could refer to "food," "eat," "treat," "cookie" or "hungry." And PLAY, to your learner, might refer to "train," "play" or "throwing the ball."

These words are presented in an order that reflects the rough order that was used by many in the study group.

While it is certainly possible to introduce words one at a time, our experience so far suggests that there are advantages in simultaneously introducing pairs of words that contrast in important ways. This lets your learner pick up on how the words compare and contrast, and provides opportunities for more productive experimentation. We also recommend choosing words and requests that your learner has already been trying to communicate to you. For example, if your dog paws their water dish when they want more water, place a WATER button nearby and redirect the dish-pushing behavior to it.

Some words you introduce to your learner are likely to be confused for each other because of the similar way in which they're used. So we recommend whenever possible introducing concepts two at a time. For example, if you're going to introduce "food," consider introducing "water" at the same time so that your learner understands that the two ideas are distinct, and don't just refer to "things your learner consumes."

See Getting Started for tips on recognizing when your learner is ready to learn new words.

Suggested order of introduction

  1. OUTSIDE (this is introduced on its own, since your learner is figuring out the button at the same time)

  2. PLAY and ALL DONE

  3. TOY-1 and TOY-2

  4. WATER and FOOD* (note: avoid introducing "food" if your learner is highly food motivated)

  5. LOVE YOU and HELP

  6. WANT and WHERE

  7. YES and NO

  8. PARENT-1, PARENT-2, and OTHER-DOG (or cat)

  9. LOOK and COME

  10. WALK and POTTY

  11. OUTDOOR-1 and OUTDOOR-2

  12. NOW and LATER


  14. INDOOR-1 and INDOOR-2

  15. HAPPY and MAD

  16. SETTLE and MORE


  18. HI and BYE

  19. WHAT and ???

  20. CONCERNED and OK