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

Manding – A Very Important Target!

This is a juicy one.

Once you’re paired with your learner, you should begin manding. A mand is a request for a desired item/activity/action/information. The word ‘mand’ is derived from ‘demand or command’. This skill area is very important as it allows learners to access their environment and communicate their needs. The more functional requests a learner has, the less likely other, undesirable behaviours will serve the mand function (e.g. crying, whining, hitting etc. in order to get something).

The first thing you should do is to contrive (build) motivation. You should never prompt a mand when there is no motivation (don’t require your learner to say/sign for something unless you’re sure they want it). Some learners will make this obvious; reaching for an item, pointing to something, but others will make you work for it; maybe a subtle look at the item, or simply tolerate it being around.

Sometimes it may take time to build motivation, and you may need to try a variety of items/activities before the learner has motivation to mand. This is fine, be sure to not rush, motivation is really important when teaching a mand repertoire. If the learner isn’t motivated, try and up your game!

Make sure you ‘cleanse the environment’, in other words, don’t have the learners’ favourite things freely available elsewhere, otherwise why do they need to come to you? Keep reinforcers under your control.

Little and often. The smaller/less duration you deliver a reinforcer, the more likely you are to keep motivation high, and get more teaching trials. Say you’re teaching a mand for ‘biscuit’. Break that bad boy in to tiny pieces. One biscuit can go a long way. If each time your learner says biscuit you give them a whole one, you’ll go through loads, and they’ll probably get full pretty quick! 15 trials from one biscuit is better than 1 trial for one biscuit. You must also consider the learner losing motivation if you are too tight-fisted with reinforcement.

Another good habit to take on is to pair (associate) the item with the vocal/sign you require the learner to do. For example, when playing with a ball, repeatedly saying ‘ball’ when you do it; this will increase the likelihood of requesting spontaneously.

Be sure to use differential reinforcement throughou manding. The more spontaneously and independently the learner is manding, deliver more of the reinforcer, and less for weaker responses. Think of it like performance related pay!

The immediacy of the reinforcer is important, the quicker the reinforcer is delivered, the more likely it was because of the behaviour that preceded it (e.g. the vocal/sign), which we want to encourage. Also, the longer you take to deliver the item, the more likely a less desirable behaviour may occur. Deliver the item sharpish.

It’s important to errorlessly teach – don’t let the learner error when manding (leaving it too long before prompting, or manding incorrectly). Prompt as much as needed to respond correctly. It’s important to remember, use the most effective, but least intrusive prompt. Prompt him enough to respond correctly, but don’t over prompt, it’s a very fine line. Over time, prompts can be faded.

Intersperse mands. Don’t teach one at a time. For early learners, work on 5-10 initially. As a general rule, don’t do more than 3-5 of the same mand in a row, mix it up.

This final point gets a mixed review. Don’t choose generalised mands (vague mands, ‘more’, ‘again’, ‘please’). This probably goes against what most people out of the field will advise you to do. But think of it like this….you’re playing with the learner, surrounded by toys – cars, trains, planes, balls – having a good old play. You’re doing loads of cool stuff, having a lovely time, and the learner says ‘more’ or ‘again’. You do what you think the learner wants (1 of the many things you have been doing), but you don’t do what the learner wanted, so they engage in problem behaviour. Bad times. This can all been avoided if we teach specific mands from the off, such as ‘car’, ‘train’, ‘plane’, ‘ball’, notmore’.

I’ve been trained to mostly take trial by trial mand data, recording individual mands as they occur, recording prompt levels, and vocal approximations (if needed) which is definitely needed for those learners who have a developing mand repertoire, especially if you’re trying to shape vocals. Data for this is pretty intense, but it’s necessary. Data is our friend, and ensures we are making the correct decisions for that learner.  

So, get some potential reinforcers together, decide on the mands you want to teach, have fun, and get stuck in!