To build language skills, both verbal or nonverbal, it is beneficial to assess and understand the child’s ability. Verbal operants break down language into different elements which collectively help us communicate in our everyday lives. The term may sound strange but, if you take a closer look, you’ll realize we use verbal operants every day without realizing it.
Verbal operants is a verbal behavior approach designed to assist in teaching language in a much simpler way. It allows language to be broken down in separate parts. This is especially beneficial for autistic children who experience a variety of language and communication difficulties. Depending on the child’s ability, verbal operants help to identify the area where he/she struggles most and work from there to build it up.
In this article, we will break down what verbal operants are and how the concept applies in teaching autistic children language and communication skills.
What are verbal operants?
Language development in infants and toddlers starts with patterns such as cooing, gestures, babbling and recognizing some spoken words. Some children with language development delays may not follow these patterns in the same way. For example, some children with autism develop echolalia which is the act of repeating words or phrases without appropriate context or communication purpose; while others may have expressive language but with limited receptive language.
Receptive language refers to the child’s ability to understand and respond to spoken language. For example, the child’s ability to listen and execute an instruction like “put your shoes on”. Expressive language refers to the child’s ability to express him/herself, such as opinions, how he/she feels or what he/she wants etc.
In the book Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner, Skinner highlights that language has several functions. He defines verbal behavior as behavior that is reinforced through the mediation of a listener. Skinner also highlights that the context in which we use a word describes our understanding of the word. For example, saying: “I want to go run”, and “does the engine run?”; the word “run” has different meanings in the context that it is used. Verbal behavior requires the participation of the speaker and a listener.
From Skinner’s observations, verbal operants are the units or elements of communication that collectively inform our use of language i.e. the way language is broken down in different elements for different purposes. It involves the speaker and the listener responding in relation to the behavior of the speaker.
For parents or therapists to assess a child’s language skills in terms of verbal behavior, the key questions include:
- Can the child repeat? Applying the echoic operant
- Can the child request? This is the mand operant
- Can the child label things in the environment without instruction? This is tact
- Can the child engage in a conversation about things? This is the intraverbal
The main verbal operant
According to Skinner’s Verbal Behavior theory, the main verbal operants are: the echoic, mands, tacts, and intraverbals. Each level describes a specific language behavior that we are often not aware of. Due to the spectrum of autism, autistic children may do well in some operants but experience difficulties in others. We also need to remember that how these verbal operants are taught depends on the child’s communication ability (some autistic children are verbal in communication and others are non-verbal or semi-verbal).
In non-verbal autistic children, teaching words through pictures, or gestures, or pointing, makes communication functional. Verbal autistic children may be able to use verbal speech, but some can experience difficulties in using it appropriately, in which case, we would consider using functional communication styles in conjunction with spoken words so that the child is able to form that link.
In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the therapist can use Verbal Behavior Therapy (VBT) to teach language and communication skills to autistic children. VBT is based on the principles of ABA, as well as Skinner’s theory of verbal behavior.
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Let’s explore the various types of verbal operants
The mand is a request. In typical development, a child uses the mand operant to request for what he/she wants. For example the child can say “more cookie”, or “give shoe”. If the child understands how words are used to request for something, it is an indication that the child understands and applies the mand operant appropriately.
The tact is the action of labelling and communicating something we encounter for the first time. For example, if a child notices a truck, giraffe, or cloud for the first time and calls out “truck”, or “giraffe”, or “cloud” from the moment he/she notices it, while simultaneously pointing at it with emotion such as shock, or surprise. This behavior is known as tacting and some children with autism struggle with tacting because it requires the child to notice, and simultaneously respond emotionally to it.
The tact requires a desire to share an experience with a listener and is maintained by the listener acknowledging it. For example, when a child sees a truck, the behavior is “truck!”; and the parent responds “oh wow, a truck!”
Echoic is the child’s ability to repeat what the parent, or therapist, says exactly back. For example, the therapist can say: “say chair”, and the child repeats “chair”.
When we engage in conversation, we’re applying the intraverbal operant. Intraverbal operant refers to our ability to hear what is being said or spoken, and link it to what we know without any kind of visual representation. For example, if you’re playing a game and someone is describing an object to you i.e. “What is the name of something with four legs, and can be used to place something on top of it?”. The other person can respond with the answer “table”.
It is a global understanding of a word, it requires the child to be able to mentally visualize the object, understand what the object is and its function just by its description. If the child is able to form a picture of it and give you the name, the child has applied an intraverbal operant.
Implementing verbal operants at home
By understanding what each verbal operant is, parents are well placed to apply these at home.
The behavior of the speaker influences the behavior of the listener; it is therefore a relationship between both parties and active engagement on both ends influences the consequent behavior and response. For parents to teach the child verbal operants that he/she struggles with, the child needs to be actively engaged. It can be challenging to focus the child but through repetition, the child will start to pick it up.
It is also important for parents to obtain training, as well as consider working alongside an ABA therapist with training in Verbal Behavior Therapy because verbal operants such as the tact don’t come easily to some autistic children.
The therapist can suggest certain exercises to implement at home so that learning does not just occur in the therapy space, but at home as well. This will therefore support a balanced learning program for the child that carries over beyond the therapy space.
Language is not simply the quantitative measure of words that the child has learned, but the application of those words in the right context. Verbal operants break down language in building blocks, which is beneficial for autistic children who may be strong in one operant but require intervention in another—this supports a child-centered approach.
Parents can obtain training from ABA therapists so they can implement the measures to improve their child’s language and communication skills at home.
Casey, L.B., Bicard, D.F. (2009). Language Development in Children with Language Disorders: An Introduction to Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and the Techniques for Initial Language Acquisition. Journal on Educational Psychology, 2(3), 1-8
Sautter, R. A., & Leblanc, L. A. (2006). Empirical Applications of Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior with Humans. The Analysis of verbal behavior, 22(1), 35–48. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03393025