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FAQs--about Verbal Behavior

Page history last edited by Regina Claypool-Frey 11 years, 8 months ago


FAQ about Verbal Behavior 


Q: What IS "VB"? 

A: "VB" is a short cut for "Verbal Behavior", which in turn is a shortcut for "Skinner's Analysis of Verbal Behavior".

This analysis is articulated at some length in B. F. Skinner's text, Verbal Behavior (1957).


In the book, B.F. Skinner analyzes language in a behavior analytic framework and considers the function of our utterances and other verbal behavior, rather than the appearance or topography.


As a simplistic example, a child who says "cookie" could be saying it because he


  1. Just heard someone say the word and is echoing = echoic
  2. Wants a cookie because he is hungry or wants a sweet = mand
  3. Doesn't want a cookie but is showing it to mom = tact+mand for attention from mom.
  4. Is labelling a circle, which resembles a cookie = tact 
  5. Is replying to the question, "tell me something you like for dessert" = intraverbal
  6. Is replying to the question, "tell me something brown (when not in the presence of a cookie)" = intraverbal


The topography/appearance of the utterance, "cookie" is identical. The functions/"whys" of the utterance "cookie" can be quite different, depending on the particular level of motivation and the environmental contingencies/relationships involved.


A cogent remark made by professional practitioner is that mands, tacts and the other elementary verbal operants are functions, not labels for events, and that operants (verbal or otherwise) usually have more than one function (are involved in more than one functional relationship). The reason for mentioning this is that at some point people often get confused because a verbal interaction does not seem to neatly fit into one simple category or another, and assume that they must be making an error of analysis, when it actually is because verbal behavior often consists of mixed functions under multiple contingencies. For a good paper that talks about the elementary operants and also multiple control, see,


Frost, L., & Bondy, A. (2006). A common language: Using B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior for assessment and treatment of communication disabilities in SLP-ABA.

Journal of Speech-language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis, 1 (2), 103-110.


Another factor that is important in the consideration of Verbal Behavior is the consideration of motivation and Motivative Operation/MO, known in the recent past as Establishing Operation/EO. This variable has been highlighted and analyzed through the work of Dr. Jack Michael and others. The role of the Motivative Operation is very significant in the teaching of mands/requesting, but also comes into play in behavior where for more subtle situations, such as manding for attention, working to show someone the results of that work, etc. Therefore in a given instruction situation, the consideration of the MO becomes significant.


For more and better explanation, see Christina Burk's webpage, What is Applied Verbal Behavior?


(I'm citing Verbal Behavior because it is the original "source" for this analysis and research, but with due respect to B.F. Skinner, even professional Behavior Analysts find it "dense" and dry reading. If you find the analysis of verbal behavior fascinating, it's perhaps worth buying, but on a practical level, I believe that I have accessed this on a reference basis somewhat less than 10 times in the past 5 years and would consider it optional).


Verbal Behavior, B.F. Skinner (1957). New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Copyright 1992. The B.F. Skinner Foundation

To obtain a copy, go to REFERENCES.


For an extensive bibliography of the Establishing Operation/Motivative Operation,

see Dr.Jack Michael's Publications



Q: Is VB the same or different from ABA/Applied Behavior Analysis? 

A: Just to clear this up from the start, the utilization of the analysis of verbal behavior is most certainly an applied behavior analytic approach, and is not something different.


This misunderstanding comes from confusing commonly used procedures with the scientific analysis of processes. Discrete-trial-training/DTT is a procedure, errorless learning is an approach utilizing different procedures, constant-time delay is a procedure, etc. The choice of procedure depends on the skill being taught, the needs to teach a response that will allow the child or student to be successful in acquiring and using the skill in a meaningful way. Different models of ABA do tend to focus on particular procedures, but any given procedure for a given child will ultimately only be as good as its ability to be successful in durable skill transfer. A good practitioner will recognize that and utilize whatever technology and procedure within the science that is required for ethical and effective behavior change for the child, student or client.


Short answer is that if data is taken, that data is analyzed and instructional decisions are made on that basis, VB is ABA.



Q: Why would a consideration of Verbal Behavior helpful to my child? 

A:The use of terms such as "expressive language" (as speaker) and "receptive language" (as listener) can be useful in identifying the topography of the behavior, but the use of Skinner's analysis of verbal operants allows a closer examination of why the verbal behavior is occurring and in turn suggests a closer analysis of the instructional framework to teach the verbal skills.


An additional point to be made is that there is some research basis that children with developmental disabilities do not automatically transfer a verbal skill across operants. In the recent past people would teach a student an "expressive label" for a car, teddy bear or cookie and then be puzzled when the child never asked for those items spontanteously or in a natural context outside of the teaching setting or would be able to answer questions about the item when not in its presence. When considering the analysis of verbal behavior, the conundrum becomes more clear. A label/tact is not the same operant as a request/mand, and are independent operants controlled by different contingencies. In the case of a request, there also has to be a consideration of the Motivative Operation, very roughly translating to how much does someone want something at a given moment.


One other consideration is that often in "expressive language" programs for children with ASD and DD, the first verbal behaviors taught are "tacts", as "expressive labels". This is different from typical development, where the first verbal behaviors are mands or requests for things that we want or meet our needs, and is strongly based in motivation (aka Motivative Operations in behavior-speak). Starting with mands, rather than tacts also helps to "prime the pump" from the student's point of view that verbally communicating is self-beneficial and increases the possibility of generalizing and sustaining use of language and communicaton.


Tacting, or labelling or identifying things without necessarily wanting them, is a good thing that is part of language. Those who work from a VB point of view argue rather persuasively that perhaps those should not be the first verbal targets and that tacts should not be the primary emphasis in a program at the expense of mands and other skill repertoires such as imitation, echoic training and early intraverbals that might have a higher priority in early learning.


A significant note that should always be considered is what is the assessment of the student's skill levels and how does that inform the program and team about what skill target priorities should be and the frequencies of that behavior that are normative and functional for the student and context?



Q: Is there research behind a Verbal Behavior approach? 

A: Yes. To see the citations of research behind this, see








For an overview of Applied Behavior Analysis in general as an intervention for children with autism, see:

Applied Behavior Analysis for Autism

Gina Green, Ph.D., BCBA for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies,


Early Intensive Applied Behavior Analytic Intervention for Autism: Selected Resources

10/16/08 Gina Green, PhD, BCBA, for the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA),

A bibliography of research studies and review articles



Q: Where can I learn more about an ABA program utilizing Verbal Behavior?

A:     1. Visit Christina Burk, M.A., Consulting Behavior Analyst

Lots of information on one site to get grounded in both ABA programming AND the inclusion of Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior.


2. Download the Mariposa School Training Materials

The Mariposa School for Children with Autism.

Note: manual and other are FREE, but a donation to the school is appreciated!


a. 4/24/07--I also want to add the note to download the FREE Pennsylvania Verbal Behavior Project Family Handbook.

This is an impressive document. (It's also a BIG FILE. Please right click and download. Thanks!).


b. 4/26/07--I just found this B.F. Skinner's Verbal Relations Cheat Sheet

Mand, Tact, Intraverbal, Textual, Taking Dictation, Copy Text, Echoic

From Tucci Learning Solutions, Inc.


c. 2/6/09--While it is somewhat more advanced, the free open access article,

Frost, L., & Bondy, A. (2006). A common language: Using B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior for assessment and treatment of communication disabilities in SLP-ABA.

Journal of Speech-language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(2) 103-110.

is a nice summary of the verbal operants and motivating operations, and gets into the topic with a little more depth.


3. Listen to Mark Sundberg's Elija Radio  interview in 2 parts, where he talks about Verbal Behavior in an ABA program.


1     and    2  


Note: I listened to this again recently, and it is EXCELLENT in discussing the analysis of verbal behavior conceptually, AND how this fits into the entire framework of ABA. Listen to both segments.There is an off-topic call during segment 1, but it's the only one.


4. View the online streaming video with accompanying handout from PATTAN/PA Advanced Verbal Behavior Principles and Approaches for Developing Language in Children with Autism PATTEN.net

Training Date: 12/9/2005

Play Streaming Media (Video Clip wmv 275)

Running Time: 272 minutes


5. Visit the Carbone Clinic website to see when and where Dr. Vincent Carbone, Ed.D, BCBA is giving his #1 Workshop.

Not only is this a good grounding for hearing what a program incorporating VB is about, Dr. Carbone is one of the best public speakers ever. Everyone comes home with information that can be applied right away. To get in some hands-on practice, plan to followup with either the Carbone Clinic #4 or the workshops by EstablishingOperations, Inc.

Look on TRAINING OPPS and CONFERENCES for the training page of the Carbone Clinic, Behavior Analyst Inc. and others.


b. Another highly recommended speaker is Dr. Mark L. Sundberg, Ph.D., BCBA.

Dr. Sundberg has spent his professional career in the research of verbal behavior, starting from his time as a student of Dr. Jack Michael. Dr. Sundberg has the research down COLD, since he is personally responsible for much of it!  He is the founder and past editor of the ABA Journal, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, co-author of Teaching Language to Children with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities, the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills/ABLLS, and A Collection of Reprints on Verbal Behavior (see REFERENCES)., and author of the new assessment, the VB-MAPP. Dr. Sundberg is an excellent behavior analyst as well as an enthusiastic presenter who will present cutting-edge information.


6. Look at the ASSESSMENTS page and obtain a copy of the ABLLS-R and accompanying scoring and IEP development guide.

You will need this for initial skill assessment and followups. In addition, reading the skill layouts gives a general idea of skill breadth and hierarchy across the verbal operants.


7. Look at the REFERENCES page.

The first category lists manuals and books that are most commonly obtained by those running an ABA program utilizing VB.


8. See the page on this site for various data collection DATASHEETS AND TEMPLATES.



Q: Can I do this by myself? 

A: Running a in-home ABA program requires some specialized training to have the most effect and to measure progress effectively.

At a minimum, attending a TRAINING WORKSHOP is HIGHLY recommended.


A CONSULTANT is strongly advised to help assess your child's skills, train you and your therapists, and develop programming.



Q: Where can I read more? 

A: Look at the REFERENCES, check out the sidebar for files and sites on TRAINING OPPORTUNITIES, AUDIO, VIDEO and SLIDESHOWS and other information.


To look at the primary research literature, see: RESEARCH JOURNALS AND ARTICLES



Q: Who can I talk to about this or ask questions? 

A: Join at least a couple of yahoogroups which can be found at

GROUPLISTS and YAHOOGROUPS. Verbal Behavior and DTT-NET are especially recommended.


NOTE: Besides being able to ask questions first-hand, don't forget that these lists archive and have search functions. It's really amazing how many posts on a topic can be pulled up by doing a key-word search. It might not be obvious, but quite a few of the experts actively posted in the earlier days of these yahoogroups, and some of them still lurk and emerge to answer a question from time to time.



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