What do I do when Traditional Language Therapy isn’t working? Language Intervention utilizing Verbal Operants

When traditional language therapy isn’t working or I feel the individual could be acquiring skills in a more timely manner, I return to my roots and utilize a behavior approach to language acquisition. There are many different behavioral approaches; however, I will be discussing the components of the Verbal Behavior (Errorless Teaching) approach in this post.

In his book Verbal Behavior, BF Skinner (1957) provided a conceptual interpretation of the controlling variables of language. Skinner defined a particular verbal operant by its functional relations to antecedents and consequences rather than by topography. The primary verbal operants identified in his book included the mand, tact, intraverbal, and echoic or mimetic.

Traditional language intervention conceptualizes language according to word meaning and syntactical structure and assumes that an individual who acquires the “meaning” of a word will readily use the word in a variety of contexts and conditions. This is very different from Skinner’s conceptualization of language and verbal operant system. Verbal operants are considered a separate and independent product of relevant environmental variables. What does that mean? Well, it simply means that labeling something in the environment is very different from requesting something in the environment.

Let’s break it down

As the SLP or special educator, you shouldn’t ask, “How many words does the child know?” and instead ask, “How strong is each type of language?” (mands, tacts, receptive, intraverbal…).

Take the word COFFEE – The conditions under which you say, “Coffee” determine the meaning of “coffee”.

Echoic – When you say “coffee” after someone else has just said it. It is what an SLP would call verbal imitation.

Mand – When you say “coffee” when you want some. It is a request.

Tact – When you say “coffee” when you see it. It is what an SLP would call an expressive label.

Intraverbal – When you say “coffee” in response to a question. It is a response or reciprocal response to a question, fill-in-the-blank, or closure task.

  • The meaning of the word coffee is not in what it symbolically represents but in the conditions under which it is said.
  • All 4 responses above are the same word with 4 different meanings.
  • More importantly, each of the meanings was acquired separately from each other through slightly different environmental circumstances.
  • When teaching language to children with developmental delays or learning impairments, the SLP and educator must contrive specific conditions to teach tacts, mands, intraverbals…
  • Waiting for the transfer (the student to use language in all operant categories) to occur naturally will limit the acquisition of language!

When we break down language into specific verbal operants, it allows us to precisely pinpoint individual student needs, where to start, what to teach, and how to teach. Doesn’t that sound amazing!?!?

Using verbal operants as a means of language intervention IS NOT limited to individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Behavioral language intervention models have been successfully implemented, across the lifespan, with individuals exhibiting many different degrees of language delays and communication needs.

Teaching Tacting

The Tact – (language component) The tact includes identifying or naming objects, actions, events, features or any other observable condition.  For example, the child sees a cookie and says “cookie”.  This is very different from a mand! The child simply sees a cookie and labels it when tacting. 

Once a child has a few mands (one-word requests) you can start tact training. It’s a good idea to start with items the child can mand (request) so that the child is motivated to label. NOTE: Do not start with highly reinforcing items like a favorite snack food because the child will get frustrated and upset when she names the item but does not gain access to the item. Remember this is a key difference between making a request (manding) and simply labeling the item (tacting). After the child has been introduced to tacting and many trials have strengthened her ability to tact, gradually add in the highly reinforcing items as tacts.

Utilize both 2D (photos, picture cards, illustrations in books…) and 3D (real objects) to support generalization and carryover. I prefer to start with real items and find it is easier for children to make connections when using items in his or her known environment (home, classroom, preschool).

When teaching tacting, the key is your “SD” (discriminative stimulus/instruction or question). It’s just semantics, my friend! Remember, when teaching a child to tact (label) our SD should be, “What is it?” or any other cue for labeling an item (Tell me what this is…) and not a question form for a request (What do you want?). Another key distinction between labeling (tacting) and requesting (manding) is that when the child labels the item, you should not give the item to the child. Instead, reinforce the child with praise, tickles or a high-five. The child must learn to label an item, but not expect to receive the item.

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