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What is Verbal Behavior?

What is Verbal BehaviorWhen 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 Applied Behavior Therapy.

Defining the Term

Verbal Behavior therapy uses similar concepts to Applied Behavioral Analysis. It is a method of teaching communication to people who have not yet acquired language using operant conditioning. It consists of four “contingencies”: Motivational Operation, Discriminating Stimulus, Response and Reinforcement. These four factors ensure that students are motivated to acquire language to meet their needs.

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. Skinner 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. In short, language is learned because it achieves a purpose.

Verbal Operants

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 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 types, or operants, taught in Verbal Behavior therapy. 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. For example, a person may say the word “spider” if they notice one crawling on the wall. The third division is intraverbal words, or words that are used to interact with others, often responding to questions. The fourth is echoing, or repetition, which is vital for retention of a concept.

The Process of Verbal Learning Therapy

Using the four types of words, learners are taught to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. Mands are typically presented first and correct responses yield a positive outcome. For example, a therapist may hold up a piece of candy and say the word “candy”. Students then must show—either verbally or nonverbally—that they understand the object is candy if they want to receive it. Prompts are given when necessary to help students arrive at the correct answer in a process called errorless learning. As students improve, assistance is gradually removed. People are taught that any type of communication may produce a positive result. Pointing at an object, at first, is just as acceptable as saying the word “candy”. Eventually, the therapist will work to shape the appropriate verbal response from the initial non-verbal behavior. One of the premises of Verbal Behavior therapy is that “it is possible to teach anyone the functional use of language.”


It is fair to say that all educational services for autistic people come with significant cost. Verbal Behavior therapy—as a specific intervention—is probably not subsidized using insurance. More likely, it can be included under other services, such as applied behavioral analysis or speech therapy. Autistic interventions, in general, are usually covered to some degree but it will depend on the particular insurance company or state legal policies. Without financial assistance, services for autistic people, including Verbal Learning therapy, will likely cost many thousands of dollars.

Does Verbal Learning Therapy Work?

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that Verbal Learning therapy is effective. It is based on a sound learning theory and possesses considerable face validity. It has been used in association with ABA techniques for almost half a century. Unfortunately, what is missing is a lot of research-backed evidence. There is some empirical support for the learning of verbal operants but very few studies explore the effectiveness of Verbal Learning as a whole. This, of course, does not mean it doesn’t work. Rather, it simply has not been studied with a robust scientific process using randomized controlled trials. Further research will be necessary to prove its effectiveness within the scientific community. Despite a lack of empirical support, it is widely used and many people have acquired language skills utilizing its concepts. To those people, there can be no doubt as to the benefits of Verbal Learning therapy.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated May 2020