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What is Verbal Behavior?

Posted by on in Behavior Analysis
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Verbal Behavior (VB) is one of the many branches under the family of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Just like ABA, VB is also derived from the philosophy of behaviorism, utilizes the basic scientific methodology for research, and is concerned with the improvement of an individual's educationally and socially significant behaviors.

Its analysis emphasizes the use of language in the environmental context within a verbal community.

verbal behaviorThe research and practices of VB is based on the book Verbal Behavior, published in 1957, by an influential behaviorist, B. F. Skinner, who discovered operant conditioning as basics for the learning of all living organisms. Although the analysis of verbal behavior is extended from the laboratory experiments of operant conditioning, it involves not only the environmental variables but also the behavior of other people who also use the same language. That is, verbal behavior operates at the level that both the behaviors of the speaker and the listener are taken into account along with any other factors in the environment.

Different from other theories of language that emphasize the physiological or cognitive process inside the organisms, Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior focuses on the controlling variables in the environment that account for the cause or function of language. Thus, VB is not limited to the use of only vocal-verbal language but includes non-vocal use of language, such as gestures, eye contacts, pointing, or any use of non-verbal cues. In addition, VB is not too concerned with the structures or forms of language, even though these are important in the analysis of linguistics.

Consider the following example.

Example 1: A 1-year-old baby points to the bottle on the table and says, "milk." The caregiver says, "Oh, you are hungry, and you want milk." The caregiver gives the bottle to the baby, and the baby drinks milk from the bottle rigorously.

Questions: Does the baby say "milk" because of the physiological or chemical reactions of the neurons in his brain? Does he say "milk" because it is grammatically correct to say it this way? Or does he say milk because he wants it at this moment?

VB analysis:

First, let's take a look of all possible factors in this episode. The bottle within the baby's eyesight can be a reminder. The motivation can arise from (a) the baby is hungry, and (b) he cannot reach the bottle. The baby then points and says, "milk." The consequence is the caregiver's attention to his need and the delivery of the bottle with milk.

what is verbal behaviorSecond, let's consider the roles—the baby is the speaker, and the caregiver is the listener. If nobody else is present, the baby's verbal behavior will not result in someone delivering the milk to him. That is, the baby's verbal behavior does not operate on his environment directly but through the mediation of his caregiver.

Finally, let's think about the cause or function. What is the purpose of the baby's verbal behavior? He uses language to request what he wants. In this case, "milk" functions as a request. And because the use of this particular request always results in getting milk from his caregiver, the baby is more likely to use the same language with the same function when a similar situation occurs again.

What are the good things about Verbal Behavior analysis?

There are many benefits about the VB analytic approach to language.

  1. The analysis enhances our understanding of the process of language acquisition in the natural environment. (Language acquisition can be natural, but this does mean it is innate!)
  2. Language can be broken down into small units or components for detailed analysis.
  3. With the analysis, specific instructional sequences can be developed systematically.
  4. When learning problems occur, the analysis helps pinpoint the possible sources.
  5. The analysis provides individualized instructional strategies based on the needs of learners at all levels.
  6. The analysis helps develop systematic and intensive intervention plans for individuals who have communication difficulties and/or intellectual disabilities. (It is possible to teach anyone the functional use of language!)
  7. With the analysis, the intervention plans for individuals with language difficulties and/or disabilities can be incorporated into either contrived or natural settings.
  8. The analysis advances empirical research because operational definitions can be defined precisely, and each small unit or component can be isolated to find out the key controlling variables.
©Copyright 2012 by The Shape of Behavior | All Rights Reserved
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  • Guest
    Audrey Borges Thursday, 13 December 2012

    I enjoyed your post, Dr. Lee. It's a fascinating look at verbal behavior.

  • Guest
    Stasia Fritz Monday, 11 February 2013

    Dr. Lee,
    Thank you for the straight-forward information in your post! What a great source for educators and parents. Can you now lead me to a source that can help me understand the "order" in which to teach language? At this time, I teach preschoolers with special needs and my program is based on the principles of ABA. My students generally leave me verbal but it is a slow process. I would like to become more educated so that I can help them to become verbal faster.
    Thanks again!

  • Guest
    Kellie Primus Tuesday, 30 June 2015

    I have an 8 year old with severe learning disabilities, especially language. Verbal behavioral therapy has been recommended, however after reading about it, I am not sure why. This therapy seems to focus on the attainment of language. My child has problems with sounding out words, blends, and reading/comprehension. How does verbal behavioral therapy help with this?

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Guest Tuesday, 15 October 2019