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Unraveling Verbal Operants: Understanding the Building Blocks of Language

Communication is what makes us human. It allows us to allow us to get our needs met, engage with others, build independence, create memories, and develop new skills. Many learners who enter ABA services, lack adequate communication skills. By assessing communication skills by their function and using the principles of ABA, learners can develop the skills they need to communicate effectively.

This post provides an overview to help you understand the verbal operants. Understanding the verbal operants ensures you’re prepared to assess and teach these important components of communication. For more information on conducting skills assessments, read our post: How To Conduct And Document An Initial Assessment For ABA Services.

The term verbal operants refers to the different functions, or purposes, of communication. They are functional units of language that comprise different ways in which individuals use and respond to language. They are the building blocks of language and were first identified and described by B.F. Skinner, a prominent behaviorist and psychologist. Understanding verbal operants is crucial in analyzing and shaping language skills.

There are six main types of verbal operants:

  1. Mand: A mand refers to a request or demand for something. It involves using language to express needs or desires. For example, a child saying, “I want juice, please” is manding for juice.
  2. Tact: A tact is a label or description of something present in the environment. It involves naming or describing objects, actions, or events. For instance, saying, “That’s a dog” when seeing a dog is a tact.
  3. Echoic: An echoic is a verbal imitation of what another person says. It involves repeating or imitating the words or sounds produced by someone else. For instance, if a teacher says, “Say ‘apple’,” and the student responds by saying, “apple,” it is an echoic.
  4. Intraverbal: An intraverbal involves responding to another person’s verbal behavior without a direct physical or visual stimulus. It includes answering questions, engaging in conversation, and completing sentences. For example, when asked, “What’s your favorite color?” responding with “Blue” is an intraverbal.
  5. Textual: A textual refers to reading or recognizing written words. It involves the ability to read and understand written language. For instance, a child reading a storybook aloud is demonstrating a textual operant.
  6. Transcription: Transcription involves writing or spelling words or sentences based on auditory or visual stimuli. It focuses on translating spoken or written language into written form. For example, a student writing down dictated sentences is engaging in transcription.

Contents

The Types of Verbal Operants
Identifying the Verbal Operant
The Role of the Listener
Ethical Considerations for Teaching the Verbal Operants
Related Research
References and Related Reading

The Types of Verbal Operants

All verbal behavior follows the ABCs of behavior. A different set of contingencies maintain each of the operants. Learners who don’t speak can use the verbal operants in other ways such as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), American Sign Language (ASL) or Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

Mand

The mand refers to the use of language to request or demand something. It is the fundamental way individuals communicate their wants and needs. Mands can be expressed through words, phrases, or gestures. For example, a child saying, “I want juice, please” or using sign language to request a toy are examples of manding behavior. Mands are essential for individuals to express their desires and obtain reinforcement or assistance.

When trying to determine if a response is a mand, ask the question, “does the learner want this?” It follows the following format.

AntecedentBehaviorConsequence
The learner wants somethingThe mandThe item requested
Learner wants a toy dogLearner says, “dog”Learner receives a dog
Learner wants to know when he can go homeLearner says “when can I go home?”Provided the information “you can go home at 3:00.”
Learner wants a cookieLearner says, “I want a cookie, please.”Learner gets a cookie
Learner wants a drinkLearner performs the sign for drinkLearner receives a drink
Learner wants a red markerLearner uses AAC and says, “can I have a red marker?Learner receives a red marker

Tact

The tact operant involves labeling or describing objects, actions, or events in the environment. It is the ability to attach language to the things we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Tacting allows individuals to share information, initiate conversations, and demonstrate their understanding of the world. For instance, when a child says, “That’s a red ball,” or describes the taste of an apple, they are engaging in tacting behavior.

Tacts occur following a non-verbal stimulus and are reinforced by something other than the stimuli that served as the SD. There is no motivation for the stimuli tacted.

AntecedentBehaviorConsequence
The learner experiences something with their sensesThe tactSomething other than the stimuli
Learner sees a dogLearner says “dog”Learner receives the attention of an adult who says, “yes! That is a dog!”
Learner smells a cookie that just came out of the ovenLearner says, “I smell cookies.”The listener says, “you do! I just took them out of the oven.”
Learner tastes a lemonLearner uses AAC and says, “lemon sour”The listener says, “oh, do you like it?”
Learner sees a sunsetLearner signs beautiful sunsetThe listener says, “it is a beautiful sunset!”

Echoic

The echoic operant involves repeating or imitating the words or sounds produced by another person. It focuses on auditory discrimination and vocal imitation. Echoics are important for developing speech and language skills. For example, when a teacher says, “Say ‘hello,'” and a child responds by repeating the word, they are demonstrating echoic behavior. Echoic training helps individuals acquire new words, improve pronunciation, and expand their vocabulary.

The SD for an echoic is someone else’s verbal behavior. This could be in-person or even on-screen in the form of a video. Again, the reinforcer is always something other than the SD. The response for the echoic has point-to-point correspondence with the SD (i.e. it’s the same as the SD).

AntecedentBehaviorConsequence
The learner hears someone else’s verbal behaviorExpresses the same verbal behavior (with point-to-point correspondence)Something other than the stimuli
Learner hears his mother say, “dog”Learner says, “dog”Learner receives his mother’s attention with a kiss on the cheek
Learner hears the teacher say, “apple”Learner says, “apple”Learner receives the attention of the teacher who tickles him and says, “Yes!”
Learner hears another child say, “moo”Learner says, “moo”The learner receives the attention of his peer who laughs
Learner hears a phone number spoken out loud “555-555-5555”Learner says, “555-555-5555”The listener says, “yes, that’s right”

Intraverbal

The intraverbal operant involves responding to another person’s verbal behavior without a direct physical or visual stimulus. It includes answering questions, engaging in conversations, and filling in missing parts of sentences. Intraverbals allow individuals to have meaningful exchanges and participate in social interactions. For instance, when asked, “What did you do on the weekend?” and responding with, “I went to the park,” it demonstrates intraverbal behavior.

Take a look at these examples of intraverbals. The SD for an intraverbal is someone else’s verbal behavior, like the echoic, but the behavior does not have point-to-point correspondence (i.e. it’s not the same as the SD).

AntecedentBehaviorConsequence
The learner hears someone else’s verbal behaviorMakes a verbal response that is different than the SDSomething other than the stimuli
Learner hears his mother say, “woof says the…”Learner says, “dog”Learner receives his mother’s attention with a kiss on the cheek
Learner hears the teacher say, “what do you eat?”Learner makes the sign for appleLearner receives the attention of the teacher who tickles him and says, “Yes!”
Another child say, “what’s your favorite movie?”Learner says, “Little Mermaid”The learner receives the attention of his peer who says, “mine too!”
Teacher says, “what comes after Monday?”Learner uses AAC to say, “Tuesday”The listener says, “yes, that’s right”

Textual

The textual operant refers to the ability to read or recognize written words. It involves connecting symbols (letters, words, or sentences) to their corresponding meanings. Textual behavior enables individuals to comprehend written information, follow instructions, and engage in independent reading. For example, when a child reads a sentence in a book or recognizes road signs, they are demonstrating textual behavior.

AntecedentBehaviorConsequence
The learner sees words Expresses the same verbal behavior (with point-to-point correspondence but without formal similarity)Something other than the stimuli
Learner sees the word d-o-g in a bookLearner says, “dog”Learner receives his mother’s attention with a kiss on the cheek
Learner sees the word a-p-p-l-e on a sign at the grocery storeLearner makes the sign for appleLearner receives the attention of his father who says, “Yes!”
Another child writes the words “Little Mermaid”Learner says, “Little Mermaid”The learner receives the attention of his peer who says, “I love that one!”
Teacher writes the sentence, “The sun was shining brightly in the clear blue sky.”Learner uses AAC to say, “The sun was shining brightly in the clear blue sky.”The teacher says, “yes, that’s right”

Transcription

The transcription operant involves writing or spelling words or sentences based on auditory or visual stimuli. It focuses on translating spoken or written language into written form. Transcription skills are essential for written communication and academic success. For instance, when a student writes down dictated sentences or spells words correctly, they are engaging in transcription behavior. Transcription training helps individuals develop writing skills, spelling proficiency, and the ability to compose written messages.

AntecedentBehaviorConsequence
The learner hears or sees words Writes words (with point-to-point correspondence)Something other than the stimuli
Learner sees the word d-o-g in a bookLearner writes dog on the chalkboardLearner receives his mother’s attention with a kiss on the cheek
Learner sees the word a-p-p-l-e on a sign at the grocery storeLearner writes the word apple on a piece of paperLearner receives the attention of his father who says, “Yes!”
Another child writes the words “Little Mermaid” on their notebookLearner also writes Little Mermaid on their notebookThe learner receives the attention of his peer who says, “That’s my favorite movie!”
Teacher writes the sentence, “The sun was shining brightly in the clear blue sky.”Learner writes the sentence “The sun was shining brightly in the clear blue sky” on their homework assignmentThe teacher says, “yes, that’s right”

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Identifying the Verbal Operant

Each verbal operant serves a different function. Responses that are topographically similar may serve different functions. For example, if a child sees a dog and says “dog” but does not want want the dog then it’s a tact. If the child wants you to give him the dog (or bring the dog closer to pet the dog), that’s a mand. Take a look at the video below.

The operants vary in their formal similarity (i.e. whether they are spoken or written) and in whether or not they have point-to-point correspondence (they match or are the same) with the SD. They also vary in their consequences as one operant (the mand) receives the stimuli that was part of the SD. Take a look at the table below for more clarification.

OperantFormal Similarity Point-to-Point CorrespondenceAntecedentConsequence
MandNoNoMotivation for a specific stimulusThe specific stimulus
TactNoNoExperiences a stimulus through the 5 senses, nonverbalReinforcer other than the SD
EchoicYesYesSomeone else’s verbal behaviorReinforcer other than the SD
IntraverbalYesNoSomeone else’s verbal behaviorReinforcer other than the SD
TextualNoYesWritten stimulusReinforcer other than the SD
TranscriptionSometimesYesVerbal SD or written wordReinforcer other than the SD

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The Role of the Listener

In a post about verbal behavior, we would be remiss to ignore the role of the listener. According to B.F. Skinner, language is a social phenomenon that involves both the speaker and the listener. He emphasized that understanding the listener’s behavior is essential for a comprehensive analysis of verbal behavior.

Skinner proposed that the listener’s behavior is crucial in shaping and maintaining the speaker’s verbal behavior. He argued that the listener’s responses, such as attending, reinforcing, or ignoring the speaker’s verbal behavior, play a significant role in the acquisition and development of language skills. The listener’s behavior serves as a form of social reinforcement, influencing the speaker’s subsequent verbal behavior.

Skinner further identified different types of listener behavior. These include:

  1. Selection by Consequences: The listener’s behavior is influenced by the consequences of the speaker’s verbal behavior. If the listener attends to and reinforces the speaker’s communication efforts, it encourages the speaker to continue using language in a particular way. For instance, if a child says “milk” and the parent responds by giving them a glass of milk, the child is more likely to use the word “milk” to request it in the future.
  2. Listener’s Discrimination: The listener’s ability to discriminate and respond appropriately to different verbal stimuli is crucial. By responding selectively to specific verbal stimuli, the listener can shape the speaker’s behavior. For example, a child may learn to respond differently to questions versus statements, demonstrating the listener’s ability to discriminate between different types of verbal behavior.
  3. Reinforcement of Listener Behavior: Skinner also highlighted the importance of reinforcing the listener’s behavior. When the speaker’s verbal behavior is reinforced by the listener’s attending and appropriate responses, it strengthens the listener’s behavior of attending and responding to future verbal stimuli.

Skinner’s analysis of the role of the listener in verbal behavior underscores the interactive nature of language. He emphasized that successful communication requires not only effective speaker behavior but also the active participation and appropriate responses from the listener. Understanding and analyzing the listener’s behavior provides valuable insights into how language is acquired, maintained, and shaped within a social context. This perspective continues to inform research and intervention approaches in the field of verbal behavior.

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Ethical Considerations for Teaching the Verbal Operants

Ethics is at the heart of everything we do. When evaluating and teaching the verbal operants, there are many important considerations to keep in mind. Whenever BCBAs use ABA to change the behavior (even in teaching new skills), they must approach the situation with care and consider the ethics of the situation. The table below provides some key points to consider.

Ethical ConcernDetails
Scope of CompetenceBCBAs must provide services within their areas of competence and expertise. In the context of verbal operants and language development, it is important for BCBAs to have a solid understanding of the various verbal operants and their applications. BCBAs should ensure that they have the necessary knowledge and training to effectively assess and intervene with learners’ language skills.
Assessment and TreatmentBCBAs must conduct comprehensive assessments to determine the most appropriate interventions for learners. Regarding verbal operants and language, BCBAs should use evidence-based assessment tools and procedures to evaluate learners’ language abilities. They should also consider the individual needs and preferences of the learner when selecting and implementing interventions.
Individualized ProgrammingCBAs must develop individualized behavior change programs that consider the unique needs, strengths, and preferences of each learner. In the context of language development, BCBAs should tailor their interventions to target the specific verbal operants that are most relevant to the learner’s goals and objectives. This might involve implementing strategies such as mand training, tact training, listener training, and intraverbal training based on the learner’s current abilities and communication goals.
Avoiding HarmBCBAs must make reasonable efforts to minimize the risk of harm to learners and others involved in the intervention. When working with verbal operants, BCBAs should ensure that the interventions they implement are based on scientifically supported principles and do not cause unnecessary distress or harm to learners. BCBAs should continuously monitor the effects of their interventions and modify them as necessary to ensure the well-being and progress of the learner.
Professional and Ethical ResponsibilityBCBAs must uphold the highest standards of professional conduct and ethical behavior. They should stay updated with the latest research and developments in the field of verbal operants and language development. BCBAs should also engage in ongoing professional development to enhance their skills and knowledge in order to provide the best possible services to their learners.

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Related Research

BCBAs are tasked with conducting ongoing research. It can be a daunting task to find relevant research. The table below provides a brief summary of some research articles related to the verbal operants. Take time to search for research specific to your learner, but these articles will give you a place to start.

ArticleSummary
The duplic and codic: The importance of a consistent taxonomy of verbal behaviorThe article discusses the significance of maintaining a consistent taxonomy of verbal behavior by focusing on two key terms: duplic and codic. The authors emphasize the importance of clarity and precision in verbal behavior research, as a well-defined taxonomy allows for accurate understanding and communication within the field. The concept of duplic refers to the repetition of verbal behavior, while codic relates to the different functions or purposes of verbal behavior. By establishing a consistent taxonomy, researchers can enhance the reliability and validity of their findings, facilitating effective collaboration and advancement in the field of verbal behavior research.
Further evaluation of emerging speech in children with developmental disabilities: Training verbal behaviorThis article explores the idea of functional independence of verbal operants and its implications. Training for different types of verbal operants may be included in language programs, but it’s important to note that context plays a role. A study found that training produced mastery levels for three responses, but generalization across verbal operants was limited. Ongoing evaluation of vocal response function is recommended in training. The article also touches on reinforcement in language training for individuals with developmental disabilities. Understanding the functional independence of verbal operants and the need for ongoing evaluation is crucial.
The Future of Verbal Behavior: IntegrationThis article covers topics related to verbal behavior research, including comprehensive models, TAVB’s role in disseminating information, graduate programs promoting research, and the simultaneous protocol. The author emphasizes collaboration and finding areas of agreement. The article also explores the relationship between verbal behavior development and equivalence class formation, using protocol analysis. The goal is a shared understanding of complex verbal behavior.
The role of joint attention in the verbal behavior development trajectoryThe article explores the significance of joint attention in the development of verbal behavior. Joint attention refers to the shared focus between individuals on an object or event. The study examines how joint attention influences the trajectory of verbal communication skills. It highlights that joint attention plays a crucial role in language acquisition and the development of social communication abilities. The article emphasizes the importance of promoting joint attention in interventions and therapies for individuals with language impairments.
The importance of multiple exemplar instruction in the establishment of novel verbal behaviorThis article highlights the significance of multiple exemplar instruction for developing new verbal behavior. It emphasizes that using various examples and contexts during instruction helps individuals acquire and generalize language skills effectively. The study underscores the crucial role of multiple exemplars in establishing novel verbal behavior.
Generalized verbal behavior increases following a speaker immersion interventionThe article explores the impact of a speaker immersion intervention on generalized verbal behavior. The study finds that individuals who underwent the intervention showed increased levels of generalized verbal behavior. This suggests that the immersion approach effectively enhances a person’s ability to generalize their verbal skills across various contexts. The findings have important implications for improving communication skills and language acquisition strategies.
A review of empirical studies of verbal behaviorThis article provides a comprehensive review of empirical studies on verbal behavior. It examines various research findings and explores different aspects of verbal behavior, such as language acquisition, communication disorders, and the effects of reinforcement on verbal responses. The article highlights the importance of understanding verbal behavior and its underlying mechanisms for educational and clinical purposes.
The ontogenetic evolution of verbal behaviorThe article explores the development of verbal behavior throughout an individual’s life, highlighting its evolutionary aspects. It examines how language skills evolve from infancy to adulthood and how social and environmental factors shape language acquisition. The study emphasizes the importance of understanding the ontogenetic evolution of verbal behavior for enhancing communication skills and addressing language-related disorders.
The benefits of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior for children with autismSkinner’s analysis of verbal behavior offers significant advantages for children with autism. This article highlights the benefits, which include improved language skills, enhanced communication abilities, and more effective intervention strategies. By understanding and applying Skinner’s principles, therapists and educators can help children with autism develop crucial communication skills and improve their overall quality of life.
Systematic review of verbal operants in speech generating device research from Skinner’s analysis of verbal behaviorThis article provides a systematic review of research on verbal operants in speech generating devices (SGDs) based on B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. It examines the use of SGDs in facilitating various types of verbal behavior, such as manding (requesting), tacting (naming), and intraverbals (conversational responses). The review highlights the effectiveness of SGDs in promoting functional communication skills in individuals with communication impairments, demonstrating the practical application of Skinner’s analysis in SGD research.

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References and Related Reading

Blair, B. J., & Farros, J. N. (2019). The Duplic and Codic: The Importance of a Consistent Taxonomy of Verbal Behavior. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 35(2), 235-244. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40616-019-00114-0

Kelley, M. E., Shillingsburg, M. A., Castro, M. J., Addison, L. R., & LaRue Jr, R. H. (2007). Further evaluation of emerging speech in children with developmental disabilities: Training verbal behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis40(3), 431-445.

Fienup, D.M. The Future of Verbal Behavior: Integration. Analysis Verbal Behavior 34, 18–23 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40616-018-0108-z

Harms, G. T. (2020). The role of joint attention in the verbal behavior development trajectory. Columbia University.

LaFrance, D. L., & Tarbox, J. (2020). The importance of multiple exemplar instruction in the establishment of novel verbal behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis53(1), 10-24.

Naresh, A., Short, M. K., & Fienup, D. M. (2020). Generalized verbal behavior increases following a speaker immersion intervention. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior36, 308-317.

Oah, S. Z., & Dickinson, A. M. (1989). A review of empirical studies of verbal behavior. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior7, 53-68.

Simon, C. (2020). The ontogenetic evolution of verbal behavior. European Journal of Behavior Analysis21(2), 364-381.

Sundberg, M. L., & Michael, J. (2001). The benefits of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior for children with autism. Behavior modification25(5), 698-724.

Tincani, M., Miller, J., Lorah, E. R., & Nepo, K. (2020). Systematic review of verbal operants in speech generating device research from Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. Perspectives on Behavior Science43, 387-413.

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