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What are Verbal Operants in ABA?

January 2, 2024

Verbal operants break down language into different elements that help us communicate in our everyday lives. The term itself may sound strange, but if you look closer, you’ll realize we use verbal operants daily without realizing it.

Verbal operants can be especially beneficial for autistic children who experience a variety of language and communication difficulties. This article will break down what verbal operants are and how the concept applies in teaching autistic children language and communication skills.

Verbal operants are a crucial part of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). If you’d like to learn more about ABA, you can download your free guide here:

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What are Verbal Operants?

Babies start developing language through actions like cooing, gestures, and recognizing words. However, some with delays might show different patterns.

For instance, children with autism may repeat words without context (echolalia) or have expressive language with limited understanding (receptive language).

Verbal behavior, as described by B.F. Skinner, involves communication functions such as:

  • repeating,
  • requesting,
  • labeling, and
  • engaging in conversation.

Verbal operants, as described by Skinner, are essential elements of communication that include behaviors such as:

  • repeating (echoic operant),
  • requesting (mand operant),
  • labeling things in the environment without instruction (tact),
  • and engaging in conversations about various topics (intraverbal).

The Main Types of Verbal Operants

Verbal operants are functional units of language that describe different ways in which people use language to communicate. According to Skinner’s theory, key language behaviors in children include:

  • echoic (repeating words),
  • mands (requesting),
  • tacts (naming things),
  • intraverbals (engaging in conversation).

1. Echoic

Echoic is the child’s ability to repeat what the parent or therapist says. 

An example of echoic would be the therapist saying: “Say chair,” and the child repeating, “chair.”

2. Mand

The mand is a request. In typical development, a child uses the mand operant to request for what they want.

An example of a mand would be the child saying “more cookie” or “give shoe.” If the child understands how words are used to request something, it indicates that they understand and apply the mand operant appropriately.

3. Tact

Tact is the action of labeling and communicating something we encounter for the first time. 

An example of tact would be a child noticing a giraffe for the first time and calling out “giraffe” from the moment they notice it while simultaneously pointing at it with emotion such as shock or surprise.

This behavior is known as tacting. 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!”

4. Intraverbal

When we engage in conversation, we’re applying the intraverbal operant. Intraverbal operant refers to our ability to hear what is being said and link it to what we know without the object being present.

An example of an intraverbal would be if you’re playing a game and someone is describing an object to you. If someone asks, “What is the name of something with four legs that can be used to place something on top of it?” the other person can respond with “table.”  

It is a global understanding of a word. It requires the child to be able to mentally visualize the object and understand what the object is and its function just by its description. If the child can form a picture of it and give you the name, the child has applied an intraverbal operant.

A chart of verbal operants in ABA
Verbal Operants Chart

The Role of Verbal Operants in ABA Therapy

In ABA Therapy, verbal operants play a crucial role in teaching language and communication skills. This therapy helps students grasp why words are used and how they express what they want.

It aligns seamlessly with ABA’s goal of enhancing functional communication and language comprehension, making it a valuable addition to any ABA program.

Professionals, educators, and caregivers are encouraged to teach across all operants to promote optimal language acquisition and understanding for students.

How Can You Use Verbal Operants at Home?

Parents can effectively use verbal operants at home by understanding each one and recognizing the interactive relationship between the speaker and the listener. 

Seeking training and collaborating with an ABA therapist experienced in Verbal Behavior Therapy is recommended, especially for teaching challenging operants like tact.

The therapist can suggest exercises for home, ensuring the child’s learning extends beyond therapy sessions, creating a comprehensive learning environment.

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Q: What are elementary verbal operants in ABA?

A: There are four elementary verbal operants in ABA: echoic (repeating), mand (requesting), tact (naming), and intraverbal (engaging in conversation). These operants serve as fundamental components in teaching language and communication skills in ABA therapy.

Q: What is Verbal Behavior in ABA?

Verbal Behavior is a therapeutic approach focused on teaching language and communication skills by understanding and implementing verbal operants.

Q: Is verbal operant therapy suitable for all individuals with autism?

A: Verbal operant therapy can be customized to meet the unique needs of each individual with autism, making it a versatile approach for many.

Q: What role do parents play in verbal operant interventions?

A: Parents and caregivers are crucial in supporting verbal operant interventions. They provide consistency and reinforcement in everyday interactions.


VERBAL BEHAVIOR by B. F. Skinner William James, Harvard University, 1948

The Functional Independence of Skinner’s Verbal Operants: Conceptual and Applied Implications

Speech and language assessment: A verbal behavior analysis

Teaching Verbal Behavior to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

A Comparison of Textual and Echoic Prompts on the Acquisition of Intraverbal Behavior in a Six-Year-Old Boy with Autism

On Intraverbal Control and the Definition of the Intraverbal


Tact instruction for children with autism spectrum disorder: A review

The Generalization of Mands

Skinner’s Elementary Verbal Relations: Some New Categories

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