First of all, should probably say what a verbal operant actually is. B.F. Skinner was a top bloke. His contribution to the field is sensational. In 1957, he wrote a particularly influential book; Verbal Behaviour. In this book, he outlined the verbal operants.
A verbal operant is essentially a unit of language; a broken-down category, a unit of analysis. These verbal operants are often words that people don’t tend to use on a daily basis. Skinner used different words to define them, because his analysis of language was different to most. He looked at the function, and not the structure (which most people looked at, and still do).
So, words such as ‘mand’, ‘tact’, and ‘intraverbal’ were born. Here is a table that hopefully simplifies what each one is;
|Mand||A request||Saying ‘crayon’ when you want some crayons|
|Tact||Labelling something||Saying ‘crayon’ solely because you’ve seen a crayon|
|Intraverbal||Answering questions/conversation skills||Saying ‘crayon’ when someone asks ‘what do you colour with?’|
|Echoic||Vocal imitation||Saying ‘crayon’ because someone else says ‘crayon’|
|Textual||Reading||Saying ‘crayon’ because you saw the written word crayon|
|Transcription||Writing what someone has said||Writing crayon because someone said crayon|
Arguably the most common views on the development of language are from the field of cognitive psychology (Sundberg in Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007). So why do we need these words? It’s because Skinner defined them based on their unique function. More common terms that are used (by non ABA folk), are not defined this way. For example, a term such as ‘expressive language’ is often used by other professionals in different fields, but it tends to incorporate areas such as mand, tact, and intraverbal, without defining them separately as different skills. The problem with this is that we then assume some skills are known. Here’s an example to hopefully clear this up, click on this link to access a little table – Antecedent Behaviour Consequence
The behaviour in the table is all the same; saying/signing ‘crayon’, but no process is the same because of what came before and/or after the behaviour. They are all different. More typical analysis of learning can assume generalisation across verbal operants, but as many of you reading know, just because you can tact a ball, doesn’t mean you can read the word, mand for a ball, or answer intraverbal questions about a ball; all these things may need to be taught individually. Only then do we ‘know’ ball.
Other common areas discussed during assessments such as the VB MAPP or ABLLS-R is receptive language (or listener responding), which is where you basically follow an instruction as a listener.
For example, someone says ‘find the crayon’ and you touch the crayon. This is not technically a verbal operant, but it is a category that we teach across.
If you’re a bit of a geek like me, and you want to test yourself, here is a link to an exercise from Cooper, Heron, and Heward’s awesome text-book on ABA – VB Exercise