Skip to content

Teaching Receptive Labels: A Guide for Parents & ABA Professionals

receptive labels

Imagine this: you’re in the thick of home renovations, and your partner shouts over the sound of drilling, “Hey, can you pass me the Phillips head screwdriver?” Now, if you’re anything like us during a first DIY project, you might be staring into the toolbox thinking, “Um, which one is that again?” It’s like they all suddenly decided to play hide and seek, except you didn’t know you were playing. But here’s where this ABA skill comes in handy: receptive labels.

Receptive labels, or the ability to understand and mentally categorize words and phrases when we hear or see them, are foundational in both language learning and cognitive development. For our learners, mastering receptive labels is a critical skill.

This post explores the significance of teaching receptive labels, with practical strategies for ABA professionals and parents alike.

What are Receptive Language Skills?

Receptive language skills are all about comprehension — the ability to process and make sense of spoken or written language. They differ from expressive language skills, which involve producing speech.

Developing strong receptive language abilities is crucial as it lays the groundwork for effective communication, reading skills, and overall academic success.

What Are Receptive Labels?

At their core, receptive labels are the names we give to objects, actions, people, and concepts. Understanding these labels helps learners follow instructions, answer questions, and share their thoughts and feelings.

So, when your partner asks for that Phillips head screwdriver and you hand over the correct one, you’re displaying your superpower in understanding receptive labels. But, if you accidentally hand over a hammer, it’s a clear sign we need to strengthen your receptive skills.

By building strong receptive labeling skills, we’re essentially equipping children with the tools they need for successful cognitive and social development.

How to Teach Receptive Labels

Step 1: Use Motivating Items

Find things that spark joy for your client – do they love dinosaurs? Let’s use those! By connecting learning with fun, we’re halfway there.

When thinking of receptive labels, think relevant! The chances of a learner needing to know a Phillips screwdriver vs. a flathead for their first receptive labels are slim to none (unless this is what motivates them!). However, they are very likely to encounter a cup and a shoe in their everyday lives, so start there.

Step 2: Choose Your Teaching Targets

First, make sure your learner has mastered the skill of matching!

Start with items that are motivating for your learner – it is great to pair this program with learners who are manding for many items (check out our blog on the echoic-to-mand transfer here). Research tells us that manding leads to receptive identification – if a student can ask for a preferred item, they should be able to identify that item. Check out our video on how to choose receptive targets here.

Put out 1 target item, and an array of 3 (1 matching the target, and 2 distractor items). As the instructor, you’ll provide an SD along the lines of, “Show me/find the/match [target item].”

A distractor item is different from the target item. Make these functional items that do not sound the same — we want to teach our learners, not trick or confuse them.

The table is set up with materials [visual for apple] [visual for shoe] [visual for ball]

Instructor: Holding item [apple], SD “Find the apple”, hands apple to the learner
Learner: Puts item apple on visual apple

Score interval as correct. If an array of 3 items (1 target and 2 distractor items) is too complex for your learner, you can start with an array of 2 items (1 target and 1 distractor item). Is your learner still having difficulty with an array of 2 items?! No problem!

Use the target item, and a BLANK visual.

Step 3: Teach Across Operants

For every set of items you introduce, teach across operants. Start with matching, then non-identical matching, the receptive identification. Then, if a student can speak, teach the expressive label as well. Then move on to your next teaching set.

By teaching across operants, you are teaching conceptualization. When skills are taught and mastered in silos (i.e., matching first for many, many items, then receptive labels for many items, then expressive labels only once matching and receptive labels are taught), some students have a tough time connecting meaning to each item.

Here’s what teaching should look like:

Set 1: Shoe, Cup, Ball

Matching (matching helps with generalization later on – it is helpful for a learner to know that a green cup and a glass cup are both “cup”).

Put out 1 target item (picture or object), in an array of 3 (1 matching the target, and 2 distractor items). E.g., Shoe (target) + Apple (distractor/non-target) + Doll (distractor/non-target)

The instructor will hold up another shoe (identical or non-identical to what is in the array) and provide an SD along the lines of, “Show me/find the/match [target item]”.

The student will take the target item from the instructor and match it to the shoe on the table. (Some students can actually just look at the target in the instructor’s hand and then point to the item on the table. That’s okay too.)

Instructor: Holding item [shoe], SD “Find the shoe”, hands the shoe to learner
Learner: Puts item shoe on visual shoe
Score interval as correct

Receptive Identification

This is set up almost the same way the matching trial was set up, but now the instructor is no longer holding a matching item:

Instructor: [Nothing is being held up] SD “Find the shoe”
Learner: Points to the visual shoe in the array
Score interval as correct

Expressive Labeling

Instructor: Holds up 1 item and asks, “What is it?”
Learner: Labels, “Shoe”
Score interval as correct

Set 2: Another set of 3 relevant items

Teach matching, receptive, expressive. Then randomly rotate both mastered sets. Next, teach set 3. Then randomly rotate all mastered sets. Next, teach set 4, etc.

What if the Learner Has Difficulty with Receptive Labels?

Reduce the Array

If an array of 3 items (1 target and 2 distractor items) is too complex for your learner, you can start with an array of 2 items (1 target and 1 distractor item).

If your learner is still having difficulty with an array of 2 items, no problem! Use the target item, and a BLANK visual.

Repetition & Consistency

Repetition is the key to learning, and this holds true for teaching receptive labels. Consistent exposure, through daily routines or specific activities, helps reinforce learning. It’s about creating a language-rich environment where these labels become part of everyday life.

Engaging Activities & Games

Incorporating play into learning is a powerful strategy. Whether it’s through simple, “Show me the…” commands during playtime or more structured matching games, these activities can significantly boost a child’s understanding and use of receptive labels.

Transfer Trials

So, your learner pointed at the apple when you asked for the shoe. No problem – prompt them towards the shoe and try again with a transfer trial. This time, guide their hand if needed. Remember, the first attempt is what counts in our data book, but every try builds more skill.


Prompting is our sidekick in teaching receptive labels. It could be a gentle nudge toward the correct choice or a point that says, “Hey, look here!” Every learner is unique, so finding the right level of prompting is part of the process.

Errorless Teaching

Errorless teaching minimizes the chance of mistakes, ensuring that learning experiences are positive and confidence-building. These strategies are particularly useful in creating a supportive learning environment where children feel encouraged to explore and learn without fear of failure.

What are the Challenges with Teaching Receptive Labels?

Teaching receptive labels isn’t without its challenges, such as varying attention spans and diverse learning needs.

Adapting teaching methods to fit each child is key. This might mean breaking lessons into shorter, more manageable segments or using a variety of teaching materials to cater to different learning styles.

Teaching receptive labels is a vital part of fostering language development and cognitive growth. By employing a mix of strategies — visual aids, repetition, engaging activities, and positive reinforcement — both ABA professionals and parents can create a rich, supportive learning environment.

Remember, every learner’s journey is unique; flexibility and patience are key. Armed with these tools and strategies, you’re well-equipped to help the children in your care unlock the power of language and communication.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Receptive Labels: A Guide for Parents & ABA Professionals”

  1. Pingback: How to Encourage ABA in the Everyday - How to ABA

  2. Pingback: Error Correction Procedure and Transfer Trial - How to ABA

  3. Pingback: What Are Labeling Words? – Pietroortolani

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Captcha loading...