Verbal Behavior - A Functional Approach to Language
Teaching Language to Early Learners
In 1934, at the age of 30, B. F. Skinner found himself at a dinner sitting next to Professor Alfred North Whitehead. Never one to lose an opportunity to promote behaviorism, Skinner expounded its main tenets to the distinguished philosopher. Whitehead acknowledged that science might account for most of human behavior but he would not include verbal behavior. He ended the discussion with a challenge: "Let me see you," he said, "account for my behaviour as I sit here saying, 'No black scorpion is falling upon this table.'"
The next morning Skinner began this book. It took him over twenty years to complete. The book extends the laboratory-based principles of selection by consequences to account for what people say, write, gesture, and think. Skinner argues that verbal behavior requires a separate analysis because it does not operate on the environment directly, but rather through the behavior of other people in a verbal community. He illustrates his thesis with examples from literature, the arts, and the sciences, as well as from his own verbal behavior and that of his colleagues and children. Perhaps it is because this theoretical work provides a way to approach that most human of human behavior that Skinner often called Verbal Behavior his most important work.
Published originally in 1957. Reprinted by the B. F. Skinner Foundation in 1992 and 2002.
Our mission is to provide evidence-based behavior analytic services to learners with autism and other developmental disabilities through direct services and training of family members and educators. We accomplish this by insuring that the learner’s progress occurs through the arrangement of teaching environments which are mostly positive and arranged to ultimately allow the learner to continue to develop language and other skills in typical community and family settings.
1. Every learner has the potential to develop skills beyond their current level and should be free of behaviors and activities that cause injury, pain, or limit opportunities for full community involvement.
2. Communication skills and other skills that lead to rewarding personal relationships, well being, vocational productivity, and self-determined daily activities should be targeted.
3. Reliance on the evidenced-based literature of the science of applied behavior analysis and its underlying assumptions will lead to the best possible learner outcomes.
4. Functional communication is the foundation that supports the development of skills in all areas and therefore B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior and the supporting empirical work informs our treatment and instructional recommendations.
5. Reliable data which are gathered and analyzed on a schedule sufficient to make informed decisions is necessary to achieve the best outcomes for our learners.
Jack Michael, PhD
Jack Michael - Verbal Behavior (1984)
Jack Michael - VB Powerpoints (2004-2006)
The Mariposa School is a non-profit organization created specifically to offer children with autism and other developmental disabilities year around, intensive instruction using innovative teaching techniques. Based in central North Carolina, the school has attracted international attention for its progressive teaching curriculum and various programming opportunities. Families from across the country and world have relocated so their children can attend the school – a testament to the effectiveness of its teaching methodology and commitments to helping these students succeed. Each program is tailored to fit individual needs so that the student may realize his/her maximum potential.
Because each child is unique, every student’s program is different. By working as a team, each professional augments the input and efforts of the other team members. There is no one, right way to teach, and we learn more about each student every day. Therefore, we reassess each student’s skills on a daily basis to monitor progress and modify teaching strategies as needed. When problems occur, we do not merely identify them, we look for ways to solve them. We base our teaching techniques on what research studies have shown to be most effective. Progress is tracked and is measurable. As a result of the low staff to student ratio (ratio varies by program), students receive a high level of reinforcement for their efforts, and changes may be made to the teaching approach based on the way the student responds.
The primary goal of this website is to provide information on B.F. Skinner’s (1957) analysis of language. Recently, Skinner’s work has experienced wide-spread use for language assessment and intervention for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. The following brief overview of Skinner’s analysis and its application to the treatment of children with autism is provided to give users of this site an overview of the content.
A Brief Overview of a Behavioral Approach to Language Assessment and Intervention for Children with Autism
"The primary focus of an intervention program for children with autism should be on the development of effective language skills. However, language is complex, and the professional literature contains a vast array of theories, opinions, and views as to how to analyze, assess, and teach language. Currently, cognitive theories underlie most of the language assessment and intervention programs used for children with autism. Behavior analysis provides an alternative analysis of language (Skinner, 1957) that is an empirically sound and comprehensible conception of human language. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior is based on the same principles of behavior and basic research that underlie the teaching procedures of discrete trial training (DTT) and applied behavior analysis (ABA). These teaching procedures (e.g., prompting, fading, shaping, chaining), along with Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior can provide a behavioral foundation for the analysis, assessment, and day-to-day language intervention program for children with autism.
The behavioral analysis of language (Skinner, 1957) identifies language as learned behavior caused by the same environmental variables that control nonverbal behavior (i.e., stimulus control, motivating operations, reinforcement, etc.). Skinner (1957) argued that emitting words and speaking constitutes learned behavior that is conditioned by contact with a verbal environment. Skinner (1957) wrote, “What happens when a man speaks or responds to speech is clearly a question about human behavior and hence a question to be answered with the concepts and techniques of psychology as an experimental science of behavior” (p. 5). Skinner noted that humans acquire their ability to talk much in the same way that they learn nonverbal behaviors.
At the core of Skinner’s functional analysis of verbal behavior is the distinction among the mand, tact, and intraverbal. These three types of verbal behavior are traditionally all classified as “expressive language.” Skinner suggests that this classification masks important distinctions among functionally independent types of language. In addition to these three verbal operants, Skinner (1957) also presents the echoic, textual, transcriptive, and copying-a-text relations. These “elementary operants” are viewed as separate functional units that serve as the basis for building more advanced language skills. The emphasis on speaker and listener behaviors as independent repertoires is an equally important component of Skinner’s analysis".
Verbal Behavior Special Interest Group (VB-SIG): This SIG is dedicated to the study of "language" from a behavior analytic point of view. Behavior Analysts attempt to study humans and nonhumans as objectively as possible, thus the focus on observable behaviors, as well as antecedents and consequences of those behaviors. The term "verbal behavior" was coined by Skinner (1957)- see that text for an in-depth analysis of language from a behavioral perspective.
Verbal Behavior Project
Applied Verbal Behavior used for OCD and ADHD
ABA Therapy with Sarah
Publications & Research
Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., and Poling, A. (2001). The abative effect: A new term to describe the action of antecedents that reduce operant responding. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 18, 101-104.
Michael, J. (1998). The Current Status and Future Directions of the Analysis of Verbal Behavior: Comments on the Comments. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 15, 157-161.
Militois, A., Sidener T.M., Reeve, K.F., Carbone, V., Sidener, D.W., Rader, L., & Delmolino, L. (2012). An Evaluation of the Number of Presentations of Target Sounds during Stimulus-Stimulus Pairing Trials, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45, 809-813.