Verbal behaviour (VB) uses behaviour analytic principles to teach language. It breaks language down into key components known as operants focusing on both listener and speaker roles in communications. These functional components of language allow practitioners to teach whole concepts to children rather than just teaching a child to label and identify items.
To put into context, think of teaching a young girl to say “cat” when she sees a picture of a cat or pointing to the picture after hearing the word “cat” versus teaching the whole concept of cat to the girl – to ask for a cat when she wants a pet; ask to pet a cat when she sees one; point at the gray fluffy cat when asked where the gray fluffy cat is hiding; and finally talk about a cat when it’s not present. The latter examples are of teaching concepts across the different verbal operants and are critical to the advanced development of the child.
As mentioned above VB focuses on both speaker and listener roles. It’s important to note that “speaker” does not refer to the use of speech but rather to the person delivering information to another person, so can be in the form of speech, sign language, or writing.
Verbal behaviour treats language as any other behaviour that can be shaped and taught using antecedent and consequent strategies. One of its key features distinguishing it from other practices of ABA is that elements of it are heavily child-led, drawing on child interests to create motivation during teaching. It uses natural play contexts and routines to teach functional skills such as requesting (manding in VB language), labelling (tacting), and talking about something when it isn’t present (intraverbals).
For example, if a boy was highly motivated by fire trucks, a verbal behaviour practitioner may set up a fire station play scene to teach him to request for the fire truck, to label the different parts of the fire truck, to drive the fire truck and to make siren noises. Depending on the learner these same skills would not only get practised during play (known as natural environment teaching, or NET) but also in a more structured setting.