Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Verbal Behavior Techniques for Increasing Language

By Tricia Gray

With ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, one is taught to look at the function of inappropriate behavior in order to make treatment decisions. Practitioners and parents quickly learn that negative or interfering behaviors often serve a communicative function for adults and children with language deficits. These deficits can range from an inability to vocalize or express wants and needs to an inability to recognize and adjust to social cues. In either case, language can determine whether a child can develop their own maximum level of independence.

Verbal Behavior programs are a part of ABA, and they take communication beyond the traditional rote responding typified in children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Their origin is with B.F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior (1957). In contrast to the rules of formal language, which focuses on the form of language, Verbal Behavior focuses on the function of language. The driving force of Verbal Behavior is the “demand” or request, as it is naturally reinforcing to the child to receive what has been requested. Other verbal operants include tacts, intraverbals, and echoics. Verbal Behavior utilizes motivation to build language by transferring control between various verbal operants, thus showing a child new ways to use language. For instance, a child who likes bubbles learns to ask for bubbles, identify or name bubbles (tact), and answer the question “What can you blow” (intraverbal). Each function of the word “bubbles” is taught explicitly and to the point of fluency. The Verbal Behavior approach also teaches imitation, which is an extremely important skill for increasing compliance, building pro social behavior, and decreasing prompt levels.

Verbal Behavior includes more than spoken word. It includes using PECS (picture exchange communication system), sign, and gestures. The important thing is that there is intent to communicate. Parents, teachers, and treatment providers should always use the spoken word, however, while supporting communication by any of the methods above. Emphasis is placed on errorless learning to promote success and to keep the child from “practicing mistakes”. Emphasis is also placed on how well the child can express his needs and wants rather than the length of sentence or the rote use of extraneous words such as “please”. A good Verbal Behavior program pairs the practitioner with reinforcement (access to bubbles in the above example), while shaping verbal behavior quickly and effectively. Verbal Behavior programs can be implemented with the assistance of a trained behavior consultant, and are most successful when used for early learners with family support and implementation.

Tricia Gray holds a Master’s Degree in Special Education and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Tricia serves as the Behavioral Treatment Service Coordinator for Family Preservation Services, Peninsula Region. She can be contacted at


Barbera, Mary (2007) The Verbal Behavior Approach. London: JKP Publishing

Gulick, R and Kitchen T (2007) Effective Instruction for Children with Autism. Erie, PA: Dr. Gertrude A. Barber National Institute