Behavioral classification of language

Does your child struggle to communicate effectively? Are they able to label lots of items but unable to request for those same items??

Where do we start when we want to teach a child to understand language and use it effectively to not only have their needs met but converse with their peers?

For the purposes of this blog and to avoid writing an entire book I’ll summarise how we, as behaviour analysts, view language – through a behaviour analytic lens.

The first thing you need to know is the term ‘Verbal Behaviour’ comes from a legendary behaviour analyst called BF Skinner.  Skinner argued that as behaviour analysts we should view language like we would any other behaviour; by identifying the function (or purpose) of a word.

Skinner (1957) defined Verbal Behaviour as: Behaviour that is reinforced through the mediation of another person’s behaviour.

Ok, what the heck does that mean?! Hold tight….

According to Skinner the meaning of a word is defined by its function (or category), not by its form (topography – what it looks like). The same word ‘biscuit’ has many different meanings based upon the conditions under which you learned to say it.

Function = what a word does for a learner e.g. does it get them something they want, or are they labelling something to show someone.

Form = what the word looks like and where it is in a sentence.

Skinner argued that for your child to fully understand the whole concept or meaning of a word that they need to be able to use a word across all the different categories (which he named; verbal operants).

Still with me???

For example, being able to request (mand) “biscuit” by saying “biscuit” does not guarantee that the same child will be able to label (tact) a biscuit when they see it and there is no motivation for it.

Many students with autism do not have verbal repertoires that include responses in each of the categories for the same word (topography). This happens because the categories are functionally independent and the responses (words) may not transfer across the categories without explicit training.

Failing to have responses in all of the categories (verbal operants) leads to a less than adequate and useful verbal repertoire. In other words, your child won’t have the skills to easily communicate.

Let’s take a look at the verbal operants in more detail.

Skinner’s elementary Verbal Operants

Mand: asking for something (items, activities, attention or information) that you want. For example; “Can I have a biscuit?” Manding is the most important function and first one to teach because there is inbuilt motivation.  Also, a strong manding repertoire will lead to a higher rate of talking as well as support the development of the other verbal operants. Individuals with developmental delays tend to develop mands which are maladaptive (e.g. aggression, tantrums, screaming, etc.).  It’s vital to start teaching an alternative mand response form (e.g. vocal, sign, PECs) in order to replace these maladaptive behaviours and provide the child with an alternative more appropriate way of communicating.

Tact: Label; naming objects, actions, events etc.  Something that conTACTS one of your senses e.g. “Look, there’s a helicopter!” Tacts are strengthened by social reinforcement in that listeners reinforce speakers for tacting because tacts provide useful information to them. ‘Pure’ tacts (i.e. spontaneous commenting) can be very difficult to teach kids who aren’t motivated by social reinforcement (e.g. often those with autism) so it’s often necessary to do a bit of work on improving joint attention first.

Echoic: repeating something you’ve heard which is clearly very important for teaching vocal speech e.g. “say mama” and child says “mama”. An echoic repertoire is an essential first step towards teaching more complex verbal behaviour and shaping articulation. It’s effective to teach pre-vocal chidlren with developmental delays motor imitation as a first step towards teaching sign language rather than focus on vocal imitation.

Imitation: Any motor movement your child makes that is an attempt to copy or imitate an action they see.

Intraverbal: A verbal response to someone else’s verbal response when there’s nothing present. In other words, answering questions or having conversations where your words are controlled by other words. For example, when someone asks what you had for snack, “I had a biscuit” or when someone asks you about your new car and you talk about its safety features.  Intraverbals are essential for conversation building.

Receptive: Following instructions or complying with requests of others e.g. “go and get your shoes on”.

FFC: Identifying specific items when given some description (its function, feature or class) of the item. E.g. “show me something round” or “point to something that bounces”.

  • Features are parts of items and descriptions of items e.g. a chair has legs, a seat and a back.
  • Functions are the actions that typically go with the items or what one does with the items e.g. you sit on a chair.
  • Classes are the group(s) the items can belong to (categories) e.g. a chair belongs to furniture.

Textual: Reading written words e.g. saying to a child “what does this say?” and they read the word(s).

Writing: Hand writing or typing words that are spoken e.g. saying to a child “write down todays date and your name and they write the date and their name.

ABA programmes that incorporate VB usually also cover skills that include:

Visual Perceptual- Match to Sample (matching, puzzles)

Listener Responding (identifying items as a listener and following instructions)

Independent play (alone play)

Social play (play with others)

Classroom routines (lining up, sitting on the carpet)

Self-help skills (dressing, feeding, walking in the community)

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