When B.F. Skinner wrote the book Verbal Behavior in 1957, was he describing the technique Anne Sullivan used to teach Helen Keller to communicate? Keller lost her sight and hearing at nineteen months of age, a time when babies typically begin to use spoken language. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, spent years teaching the child to communicate, but did she use the techniques Skinner identifies? The answer is that she probably did not use the same ideas Skinner developed nearly half a century later. Still, there may have been some involvement of the Applied Behavior Therapy.

Defining the Term

Verbal Behavior is one aspect of Applied Behavioral Analysis. It is a method of teaching communication to people who have not yet acquired language. It consists of four “contingencies”: Motivational Operation, Discriminating Stimulus, Response and Reinforcement. The last component, reinforcement is necessary to make certain the desired skill will be repeated

History of the Technique

In 1957, B.F. Skinner, already a noted behavioral scientist, wrote his book detailing several theories about how language was learned. The book was criticized because it was not backed up by any empirical studies or experiments; it was simply a set of theories based on Skinner’s observations. In the 1970s however, Mark Sundberg, Vincent Carbone and James Partington started to look further into the theories as a method of treating certain language deficiencies. That resulted in the development of a therapy method based upon Skinner’s proposals. Since that time the therapy, alone or in conjunction with other approaches has been used to help many people, including autistic children, acquire language.

How is it Used to Teach Communication?

The difference between this method and the techniques employed by Anne Sullivan in teaching Helen Keller is the basic reason for using words. The Skinner theories promoted the use of motivation for teaching language. It isn’t just learning the names for things, as in the famous “water, wa-wa” episode, but learning the function of the thing named. For instance, if Miss Keller had been thirsty, and her hand had been guided to the water cascading from the pump before she was able to quench her thirst, then “water” would have been connected to that met need for her. If she had merely learned the name for the liquid, it might not have emerged in her mind as something that could meet her need. She would have been motivated to learn the name for the thing so that the next time she was thirsty, she could communicate her need for water.

The problem with teaching a list of names of things and not connecting them to a function can be explained by thinking about an autistic child who has been taught the word for toilet, according to Special Learning.com. The child knows what the thing is, and can say the word but when he needs to use it he may not understand how to employ it to meet his need. That means he wouldn’t progress to using language to ask to use the toilet. There are four concepts taught in this method. The first is “mand,” or request words. These are taught to learners so that they can ask for something they want. The second is tact, or attention-drawing words, used to express ideas about the thing or to draw attention to it. The third division is intraverbal words, or words that are used to interact with others, often responding to questions, and the fourth is echoing, or repetition, which is vital for retention of a concept.

Using the four types of words, learners are taught to communicate verbally and non-verbally. That is, the techniques can be used to give language to someone who is not verbal. One of the premises of Vernal Behavior Therapy is that “it is possible to teach anyone the functional use of language.”