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B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior

Updated on January 22, 2012
JT Walters profile image

JT Walters has a Master's of Science in Behavoralism from Florida State University. A former Campaign Manager in a Senate Race.

B.F. Skinner


B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior

In 1957 B.F. Skinner published a taxonomy of acquisition of linguistics entitled Verbal Behavior. Skinner was herald as a genius at first and then Noam Chomsky wrote a scathing review which Skinner did not refute. Therefore Verbal Behavior has received little attention in research until the last 15 years. Perhaps because when Skinner wrote Verbal Behavior he had intended it to be a taxonomy and not a treatment manual for communication he didn’t defend the wrote or perhaps Verbal Behavior was beyond the comprehension of Noam Chomsky. To date there are less then 60 published studies utilizing Skinner’s Verbal Behavior specifically. And while most behavior list would agree that Verbal Behavior is an excellent treatment for children with Autism they would agree it should be applied in conjunction with traditional speech therapy. This article is intend for parents of children with Autism to introduce them to Verbal Behavior so they may access additional services for their children.

Sundberg and Partington (1998) write the first actual assessment guide of Verbal Behavior in children with Communication Disorders and then provided a guideline to teaching Verbal Behavior to children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

To review a few terms or verbal operants from Skinner’s Verbal Behavior;

A Mand is a request. After a child requires 50 mands he is able to tact.

A Tact is the ability to name objects. It is important to determine whether a child is manding or tacting. A mand is an immediate request as if a child says, “Milk” and is requesting milk then that is a mand. If a child is asked, “What is this?” as the adult points to the milk carton and the child responds “milk” then that is a tact.

Another verbal operant is the Intravebral. An intraverbal is a much more complicated verbal operant. It is receptive by feature, function and class. For instance if I said, “ It is orange, it grows in the ground and it is a vegetable…. what is it?” If you answered “carrot” then that would be an intraverbal. Many complex verbal operants rely upon intraverbals which are the most challenging area of verbal operant training in the field of behavior analysis. As a matter of fact, in the literature review I have conducted it is believed that children with Autism have an exceptionally limited ability to understand intraverbals but as previously stated the research has been so limited in the field that even this hypothesis warrants studies.

It is also believed that verbal operants should be taught in a linear fashion. Although there have been few studies regarding verbal behavior, the most effective way to teach verbal operants especially in children with Autism has not been scientifically determined to date.

As a Behavioralist one the most difficult barriers to providing verbal behavior as an intervention for child with Autism is our inability to explain our interventions to families and speech pathologists. Although in the last decade speech pathologists have come a long way in understanding verbal behavior.

As previously stated I am a parent of a child with Autism who also has rare disorder. I am behavioralist that has conducted research in verbal behavior for many years. I have specifically taught intraverbals to children with severe intellectual challenges with a great deal of success. I would never recommend Verbal Behavior in lieu of speech therapy but in conjunction with speech therapy. And I am entrusting all the parents who read this article with this knowledge so they may request verbal behavior therapy for their child with Autism in conjunction with other therapies.

As a researcher I am returning to my field research and I currently am involved in two opened studies in verbal behavior. As part of my literature review for our publications I read Noam Chomsky’s review of Verbal Behavior which basically claimed Skinner was utilizing techniques that were well established. I find Chomsky’s review more in favor of advocating for Verbal Behavior therapy then a rebuke of Skinner’s work.

Verbal Behavior Quiz

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    • JT Walters profile imageAUTHOR

      JT Walters 

      6 years ago from Florida

      Hi Burpie,

      There was no data supporting Skinner's Verbal Behavior before the 1970(s) and the main criticism was that Skinner created a behavioral taxonomy for liquistics training that already existed as I understood it.

      Verbal Behavior offers a viable treatment modality for children with Autism and other developmental disabilities. Through the last decade there is scientific data supporting Verbal Behavior as a valiable treatment modality for children with special needs.

    • Brupie profile image


      6 years ago

      I was under the impression that Chomsky's main criticism was that Skinner had no theoretical foundation for his observations. Skinner merely described certain observations and named them but didn't offer an explanation that added any usefulness - it was simply data.


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