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What is Verbal Behavior?


There are so many terms in ABA that it can be hard to keep track. We love our acronyms. One that often gets confused is verbal behavior (VB). So what is verbal behavior? 

I’ve seen plenty of students who were able to label hundreds of items, but really struggled with getting their needs met or spontaneously requesting for those items. Similarly, I’ve seen students who can tact (label) but not receptively identify items. This is major problem.   That’s why it’s so important to teach across operants.  But what are operants and how do they fit in with this thing called, “Verbal Behavior”?

We have a free guide that defines all the different verbal operants and reviews how to teach them. Download it below!

Verbal Behavior

Verbal behavior is all about how people use language and communication. B.F. Skinner coined the term in his book, Verbal Behavior. It’s based on the idea that language is behavior. 

Think of ABA as an overall arching umbrella and verbal behavior is just one type of ABA – just like discrete trial teaching is one form of ABA, and natural environment teaching is another form of ABA. (and precision teaching, and pivotal response treatment (PRT), and… the list goes on!) 

ABA umbrella with what is verbal behavior


When we teach language, we not only focus on whether or not a student is speaking, but also how they are using those words.  Do they understand what they are saying?  Do they use the language in appropriate contexts?  For example, let’s use the word “cup.” Does your student know how to ask for a cup, identify a cup, understand that water/juice/milk goes into a cup, follow instructions to get a cup, and label a cup?  Can they answer questions related to a cup such as, “What do you do with a cup?” and “What do you drink from?”  All of these different ways that we use language are referred to as operants.  

According to Skinner, verbal behavior consists of functional units called operants. There are several types of verbal operants, including: mand, tact, echoic, intraverbal, listener responding, and others. For a more in-depth description and examples of these operants, download the form above.

Verbal behaviour really gets to the function of a word.  Take the word, “Pizza” as another example. It’s not enough to label pizza, or even request for pizza. They should be able to walk into a house and smell the pizza cooking in the oven and comment, “Ah, that’s pizza!” They should also understand that pizza is still pizza when it’s circular, square, or cut into triangular pieces.  

One of the other things that we gain from the verbal behavior approach is the concept of mixing and varying. We don’t have to focus on one program and one skill at a time. VB gives us permission to jump from receptively identifying an item to answering a question about an item, to labeling an item, to manding for an item, to matching an item. It’s really about learning across operants and mixing and varying all those skills so that language is learned a little bit more naturally.  Sometimes we get too focused on teaching one operant, and not expanding language skills across many operants. This is when difficulties with understanding arise. 

Making Language Meaningful

A true verbal behavior approach tells us that we should be teaching about 20% new targets and mixing and varying in 80% of mastered targets. You’ll see verbal behavior teachers using cue cards that are different colors and sorting them into different piles. The colors are coded according to operants and whether the specific target is mastered or not mastered. The VB teachers skillfully teach the current skill and then pick up these cue cards as mastered targets to mix and vary between teaching trials.  It’s truly an art form and really cool to watch.

I am not that structured. When I teach VB, I mix and vary targets quite often.  I also teach across operants. But I don’t typically do the 80% mastered and 20% new targets. Because I’ve got to get so many trials in to get some students to learn, it’s more like 50-50, or sometimes it’s even reversed like a 20% mastered and 80% new targets.

The take away though with VB is to TEACH ACROSS OPERANTS!!!  We can’t say this enough.  Instead of mastering a program at the listener responding level, and then moving the program onto the tact level, and then finally teaching intraverbals, mix and vary all of these operants at once so that students don’t become rote.

It’s extremely important that our students learn that language is meaningful. Therefore, connect these abstract words that we’re teaching them with actual items and objects. For instance if they’re learning to label something preferred, it’s meaningful because then they can ask for it. 

More About Verbal Behavior in ABA

If any of you have a similar student who really struggles with requesting, despite having acquired lots of labels, go check out our verbal requesting blog on using the echoic to mand transfer procedure which is really helpful for those learners. And like with any programs that you’re using, you want to make it fun for your learners. One way to do this is by finding preferred reinforcers. Watch our video on how to use a preference assessment to find those reinforcers for your learners.

So in summary, we talked a lot today about what verbal behavior is, how it’s taught and really how we can use it to help our students learn language. 

Don’t forget to download your free verbal operants guide below!

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