Why Teach Across the Verbal Operants?

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;

Verbal Operant

Simply Put


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

Make the Most of Behaviour Analysis

Behaviour analysis is so much more than the amazing work we do with individuals with autism. It’s reach is far and wide. We are all, everyone of us, governed by the principles of behaviour, and this is utilised in many fields.

There is so much to learn, and I still am, and constantly will, learn new things. During my time studying for board certification, I was interpreting everything I was learning in to the work I did in an ABA school (Treetops, Essex). But there came a time that it started to all become overwhelming because I was realising that it was more than what I did at school. I started to realise that I could use all of the principles of behaviour to explain daily routines and interactions. 

Some areas that behaviour analysis is used in are:

  • Autism
  • Gambling
  • Addiction
  • Sports
  • Business
  • Robotics
  • Animals
  • Crime and forensics

…and many more. I strive to use the principles in everything I do, especially when it comes to parent and staff training, and working with others outside of the field. I’m always looking to improve. I also try as much as possible to use self management strategies to shape my own behaviour, and keep myself motivated and organised! Anything that involves behaviour, that’s our game.

So there you go, just in case you didn’t know, the field of behaviour analysis is massive!