Verbal Operants

Behavior Analysts are interesting specimen: we like to create our own language for things when it may or may not be entirely necessary. While we could easily refer to language in terms like labelling, requesting, or conversation, we made it more complicated – we refer to language in terms of “verbal operants”. The field of ABA uses terms like “mand”, “tact” and “intraverbal” when referring to the parts of language.

While it may seem confusing, these are important building blocks of any ABA program. They are what we are looking for when doing an assessment and when building a program. it is important for a student to have strong skill across all verbal operants. For example, if a student has a very strong tact repertoire and can label 100+ common items but can’t ask for any of those items when he wants them (i.e., mand) – he may not be able to use any those tacts functionally.

When we’re assessing language, it’s not enough to know HOW MUCH language a child has, but we need to know HOW the child is using that language. ABA is all about skills that are functional so we want to know how the child is using the language to navigate her environment? The verbal operants of language are defined by ABC – antecedent, behavior, and consequence. A child saying “cookie” because he was asked “What is it?” when looking at a cookie has a very different meaning than when the child says “cookie” because he is hungry and wants to eat a cookie.

So what are the verbal operants?

The Mand

The mand is the most basic skill that the youngest of children develop. Also known as a request, it can only be considered a mand if the antecedent was motivation for the item.

Wants a cookieSays “cookie”Gets a cookie
Example of a Mand

The Tact

Otherwise known as labelling or naming, a tact is the language evoked by an item or a picture. It can be accompanied by the question, “What is it?”.

Sees a cookieSays “cookie”
Example of a Tact

The Echoic

An echoic is when a verbal response is emitted after a model. Essentially, the speaker repeats what is heard.

The Intraverbal

Intraverbals are a more complex part of speech. It is the ability to respond or answer a question without any kind of visual or model. Being able to have conversation and answer questions like, “What’s your name?” are language skills that would fall into the intraverbal category. We usually start teaching intraverbals with simple fill-ins like “Ready, set…” “GO!” or filling in blanks from their favorite song.

Asked, “What has chocolate chips?”Says “cookie”
Example of Intraverbal

Listener Responding

Also known as “following instructions”, this part of language indicates how much language a child understands. While the operants listed above are expressive in nature, this operant is a receptive skill. A child can have stronger receptive language than receptive so it is important to assess for this and teach it as a foundation to expressive language. Listener responding is the child’s ability to follow basic instructions like, “Come here” or “Touch the book”.

Child asked to touch the
picture of a cookie
Touches the cookie
Example of Listener Responding

Motor Imitation

Motor imitation is the ability of the student to copy the actions of another individual. It can be accompanied by the instruction, “Copy me” or “Do this” but true imitation skill requires no instruction.

Parent clapsChild claps
Example of Motor Imitation
(See if you can catch the echoic!)

We often recommend teaching across operants in our ABA programs. Instead of teaching one skill at a time, teach the skill across all operants which will help consolidate the language. This is especially true for intermediate-advanced programs like categories, feature, function.

Click here to read “Expanding Language Skills Part 2”

For more on verbal operants and a great how-to video, check out

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