The Basics of Verbal Behavior Therapy*

The term Verbal Behavior is a way to teach communication to individuals who have not yet learned language. Verbal behavior therapy uses the basic principles from applied behavior analysis therapy (ABA therapy) and theories from B.F. Skinner, who was a famous American psychologist.

This approach to teaching language connects words in a purposeful way rather than just labeling items (car, house, dog, etc.). It teaches an individual the why of words and the how behind using language.

Behavior analysts look at language in classifications called “operants.” Operants are basically something that produces an effect. Verbal behavior therapy focuses on four different word operants:

  • Mand: These are verbal requests. If your child wants their toy car, they may say the word “car.”
  • Tact: This is a comment used to draw attention to something or to create an experience. For example, a firetruck drove by and your child points to the truck and says “firetruck.”
  • Intraverbal: This is a word that is used to respond to someone or to answer a question. For example, you asked your child “What state do you live in?” and they respond “Pennsylvania.”
  • Echoic: This is a repeated, echoed, or imitated word. You may say “Horse?” and your child responds by saying “horse” back.

By using these operants alongside ABA therapy, communication skills can be improved.

How exactly does Verbal Behavior Therapy Work?

Behavior therapists begin by using mands or requests to get a desired item. Maybe you want to teach a child with autism that saying “truck” will get them their toy truck to play with. As soon as the child makes the request the therapist repeats the word, then the item is given to them, once the item is given the word is repeated once more to reinforce the meaning.

In the beginning of this process the word does not need to be verbally spoken, it can even start with a simple point to an item with the therapist using the word of the item. It is important that the concept of requesting/ communicating an item produces the desired product. Over time using spoken language or sign language will be shaped into the manner of communication.

What is errorless learning?

Verbal behavior therapy uses a concept called “errorless learning.” Errorless learning means that immediate prompting is used to ensure a child is providing the correct response. Over time the prompting decreases, until the child needs no prompts to provide a response.

Here is an example of what errorless learning could look like.

  • Step 1: The therapist holds up a toy truck for a child and says “truck” to prompt a response from the child.
  • Step 2: The therapist holds up a toy truck and makes a “tr” sound to prompt a response from the child.
  • Step 3: The therapist holds up a toy truck in front of the child and gives no prompt. 

Verbal behavior therapy can be beneficial to children beginning to learn language, individuals with delayed or distorted language, and individuals who use sign language, visual supports, or other modes of assisted communication. This teaching method gives more meaning to words and can help create more expressive communication.

Here at ABA Autism Therapy, our Board Certified Behavior Analysts and therapist teams provide ABA therapy to children on the autism spectrum throughout Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Please contact us today to discuss how we can help you and your family.

*(All information in the above article on Verbal Behavior Therapy can be found  at