Understanding Skinner’s Analysis Of Verbal Behavior And Its Applications In ABA, And Especially In The VB-MAPP And EFL Assessments/Curricula

Liz Maher

Here’s a little story…a true story. of when our daughter Sarah was first learning to speak.  We were using the science of Applied Behavior Analysis when we were working with her, and she was making tremendous progress.  We broke down tasks into manageable steps, we prompted errorlessly, we faded our prompts, and we reinforced correct responses.  However, the one thing we weren’t doing was using Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior to guide us when teaching Sarah language.

What is Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior?  Well, B.F.Skinner, a renowned psychologist of his time, looked at language through a behavior-analytic lens.  He viewed language as behavior and, just like most behaviors in the science of Applied Behavior Analysis, he saw language as being an operant response, meaning that it is affected by the environment, and, in turn, the environment is affected by the language.  Just as with other behaviors, Skinner saw language as being preceded by events that control its occurrence and being followed by events that either increased or decreased the likelihood of it occurring again under similar circumstances.  He wrote a book in 1957 entitled “Verbal Behavior”

By using Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior when working with our students, we can analyze the purpose that the behavior (word/words) serves ie: and its/their function.  To do this we can look at what happens before a word is said (antecedent) and what happens after (consequence).

Back to Sarah and her initial programming…. Initially, when we were teaching language to Sarah we were looking at language in terms of expressive and receptive language.  This wasn’t very helpful.  Sarah could say, maybe, 20 words, but I was not analyzing how she was using those words.  Think about the words we use; we can say the same word for many different reasons.  Take the word “cookie”, or, if you are over 21, and are so inclined the word “wine”.

I can say the word “wine” when:

I want wine (most important)

When I see a picture of wine/hear a cork “pop”

When I’m repeating the word “wine” that I just heard someone say

When I’m answering a question, such as “What do you like to drink on special occasions?”

Now here’s the most important part of this whole Verbal Behavior “stuff”, when it comes to teaching students language, especially those with developmental disabilities or delays, just because they can use a word under one condition, doesn’t mean that they can use it under another.

Back to Sarah again….. Again she could say 20 words, but she could only say those words when she was shown a picture of that item, but when she wanted that item she couldn’t use the word.  Because I was not using Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior, I had not taught her to use these words across different conditions and so, when she wanted these items, she did not use the word but instead had a tantrum.  If I had known about Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior, these tantrums could have been avoided.

Both Dr. Sundberg’s assessment and curriculum guide, the VB-MAPP, and Dr McGreevy’s Essential for Living use Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior to analyze how your students are using their language e.g: Can they ask for what they want? Can they identify those items when asked? Can they label those items? Can they repeat those items’ names when asked? Can they answer a question about those items?  Being able to look at language through this verbal behavior lens gives caregivers so much more insight into their learners’ strengths and deficits and can significantly help with programming.

Check these amazing assessments/curricula out! And while you’re at it, check out the B.F.Skinner foundations website as well! The VB-MAPP and Essential for living both are now available as apps too! Check out the VB-MAPP App and Essential for Living App.


B.F Skinner

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