Lesson 5 Verbal Operants


Lesson 5 contains information about Verbal Operants as defined by BF Skinner. Verbal Behaivor is a subfield of behavior analysis devoted to identifying functional verbal repertoires and the teaching procedures to produce them. It is a way of analyzing language according to the various functions served to the speaker and the listener. It has an emphasis on the importance of language instruction in all of the places and situations in which you want the language to occur in the future and focuses on capturing and contriving situations that will increase the person’s motivation to learn.

Operant Overview

Verbal Operants

Operant behavior mediated through the response of a listener and includes mands, echoics, tacts, intraverbals, and autoclitics. The main difference between the mand and the other operants is that it specifies its reinforcer while the others are reinforced by secondary or social reinforcement.








Says “Car”

Gets Car


“Say Car”

Says “Car”

Social/secondary R+


Car present

Says “Car”

Social/secondary R+


“We ride in the ….”

Says “Car”

Social/secondary R+



Mand- The mand is the basis of all other verbal behavior. It involves requesting /asking for something with or without the item present. Impure mands occur as a result of the EO and the Sd “What do you want?” A “pure mand” occurs as a result of the EO or desire to have the item rather than having to be asked, “What do you want?” Ex: Can I have a cookie?  Where’s mommy? I want water.

Mand Forms:

  • Impure mands
  • Pure mands
  • Manding from peers
  • Manding in sentences (using a variety of sentence forms)
  • Manding for attention
  • Manding for information



  • Mands can be taught by transferring from the echoic, i.e. child wants the chip you have in your hand, so you say “chip.” Child echoes “chip” and gets the chip. Then you give him an opportunity to transfer to the independent by holding out another chip and seeing if the child will independently say “chip.” Multiple echoic trials may be necessary before the child independently mands for the item.
  • Mands can also be taught using fill-ins, i.e. “I want the ___”, child responds “chip.” Then provide another opportunity to transfer to the independent  mand.
  • Occasionally, mands are taught as a tact to mand transfer. This is particularly useful if the child for example reaches for the car and says plane. If you know he has the tact for car. You can then hold up the car and say ‘What’s this?’ The child says “car” and then you hold it out again and the child says “car” and you reinforce. It’s important to reinforce the first tact with a generalized reinforce and transfer it to a pure mand.

It Is important to always transfer to the independent so that the child does not become dependent on the prompts provided. It is also important to always provide the least-intrusive prompt, i.e. if the child is successful with fill-ins, use those instead of echoic, as that is a less-intrusive prompt.

 Response Forms:

Picture/object exchange


Communication Boards


Voice output device

Choosing Response Forms:

If child is non-vocal, you must use an alternative/augmentative system. Research has shown that augmentative communication encourages rather than discourages vocal productions. Before choosing the form, you should experiment to determine how the child responds to various forms.



Imitation- Imitation is a point-to-point correspondence between the teacher and the student’s behavior, i.e. teacher says “do this” and claps hands and student claps hands. Imitation is important for independent learning and play.


Teaching: Imitation is often taught through physical prompting or through anticipating actions. Initially you teach the child to do multiple actions in response to “do this.” Then you start varying the Sd, i.e. “you try,” “watch me, then you do it” and other vocal antecedents, so the child learns to imitate under various vocal stimuli “do this.” Gradually increase the difficulty and complexity of the motor imitation skills.


Echoics- What one person says is exactly the same as what another person says. There is point-to-point correspondence. Ex: Do you want to go outside? (Child says, “Do you want to go outside?) Mom says “car” (Child says “car”).


Teaching: Echoics can be taught by transferring from the mand, motor imitation, songs, “sound play” and pairing with reinforcement. Visual and/or physical prompting can be used as necessary. As the child acquires new echoics and vocabulary, gradually increase length and complexity of the echoics.



Receptive - Following directions or complying with requests of others.

Ex: Find Cookie Monster. (Child touches).  Please put your plate in the trash. (Child complies) What says Choo Choo? (Child touches train).


Teaching: Receptive skills can be taught as a transfer from imitation or with physical prompts. When teaching receptive skills we want to teach the child to respond to a variety of Sds (touch, find, show, where’s the etc). Initially, we start with items the child can mand for (or tact) as well as simple instructions, i.e. come here, sit, clap, stand. Gradually increase the complexity of the receptive targets and closely monitor for conditional discriminations.


Tact - Labeling/naming an item, action or property of an item that is PRESENT or something with which the individual comes into contact. A “pure tact” does not relate to having an EO or desire for the item.

Ex:  What’s this called? (Child names item)  How does the dog feel? (Child touches it and says “soft)), What do you see? (Child says “A bird flying in the sky.)

  • Teach by transferring from receptive (if child tacts), mand, fill-in, intraverbal or echoic.
  • Labeling objects, actions, parts, features, classes, functions
  • Be sure to vary SD’s
  • Verbal modules- teach the child to discriminate between question forms
  • Build up sentences and break them down


Intraverbal - What one person says is based on what another person says (not in contact with the item, action or property) but does not match it exactly. (Not imitation or echoic)  Ex: Twinkle, Twinkle, little            . (child says, “star”). What says “Choo Choo”? (Child says train)  What’s your name? (Child says their name). What did you do at school today? (Child says, I painted a picture!). The intraverbal is the start of conversations (mands for info and intraverbals=conversation) and involves talking about things that are not present.


Teaching: Intraverbals can be transferred from fill-ins, tacts or echoics. It is important to create intraverbal links. We typically begin with songs, rhymes, stories and daily activities and gradually increase the complexity of the intraverbals. It is also important to teach the reversals early, i.e. a dog says ___(woof), woof says a ___ (dog).

Features, Functions and Classes

FFCs - These letters refer to “feature”, “function”, and “class”.  Once a child is able to ask for, identify and label items in their environment, FFCs are taught so the child can learn associations or “intraverbal connections” between the words. Features are parts of items and descriptions of items, functions are the actions that typically go with the items or what one does with the items and classes are the group(s) the items can belong to.

Receptive, tact, and intraverbal responses are all taught so the child can learn to answer questions and talk about things when they are not present.

EX: Banana - Features: yellow, peel, long, Function: eat it, peel it, Class: food, things we eat, fruits.

 During the initial phase of teaching, the child’s response is to touch, name or respond with the item name when the FFC is said.  After approximately 30 different items have been taught, the reversal is then taught allowing the learner to define and describe things.



 peel                                                                                   Banana




Conversations are typically a combination of mands, tacts and intraverbals with occasional receptive responses.


Sam- Hi!  How are you! (mand)

Fred- I’m OK but I’ve been pretty busy! (intraverbal/tact)  I feel like I’m ready for a vacation! (tact)  How about you? (mand)

Sam- Actually, I just got back from vacation! (Intraverbal).  I’m ready to get back to work again! (tact)

Fred- Really! (intraverbal) Where’d you go? (mand)

Sam-We went to the beach for the week. (intraverbal)  Do you want to see my pictures? (mand)

Fred- Sure! (intraverbal)

Sam- Hand me that bag over there. (mand - Sam, receptive -Fred) It has my pictures in it. (tact)

Sam- This is the house we stayed in. (tact) And here’s one of the kids burying me in the sand. (tact) 

Fred- Did you like the house you stayed in? (mand)

Sam- Yea! (intraverbal) It was great! (intraverbal)

Fred- Could I get the number of the agent? (mand)  I’d like to stay there too! (tact)  Write it on this paper for me please. (Mand - Fred, Receptive - Sam).

Tracy Vail,MS,CCC/SLP

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