The primary goal of my website is to provide information on B.F. Skinner’s (1957) analysis of language. Recently, Skinner’s work has experienced wide-spread use for language assessment and intervention for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. The following brief overview of Skinner’s analysis and its application to the treatment of children with autism is provided to give users of this site an overview of the content.
A Brief Overview of a Behavioral Approach to
Language Assessment and Intervention for Children with Autism
Mark L. Sundberg, Ph.D., BCBA
The primary focus of an intervention program for children with autism should be on the development of effective language skills. However, language is complex, and the professional literature contains a vast array of theories, opinions, and views as to how to analyze, assess, and teach language. Currently, cognitive theories underlie most of the language assessment and intervention programs used for children with autism. Behavior analysis provides an alternative analysis of language (Skinner, 1957) that is an empirically sound and comprehensible conception of human language. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior is based on the same principles of behavior and basic research that underlie the teaching procedures of discrete trial training (DTT) and applied behavior analysis (ABA). These teaching procedures (e.g., prompting, fading, shaping, chaining), along with Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior can provide a behavioral foundation for the analysis, assessment, and day-to-day language intervention program for children with autism.
The behavioral analysis of language (Skinner, 1957) identifies language as learned behavior caused by the same environmental variables that control nonverbal behavior (i.e., stimulus control, motivating operations, reinforcement, etc.). Skinner (1957) argued that emitting words and speaking constitutes learned behavior that is conditioned by contact with a verbal environment. Skinner (1957) wrote, “What happens when a man speaks or responds to speech is clearly a question about human behavior and hence a question to be answered with the concepts and techniques of psychology as an experimental science of behavior” (p. 5). Skinner noted that humans acquire their ability to talk much in the same way that they learn nonverbal behaviors.
At the core of Skinner’s functional analysis of verbal behavior is the distinction among the mand, tact, and intraverbal. These three types of verbal behavior are traditionally all classified as “expressive language.” Skinner suggests that this classification masks important distinctions among functionally independent types of language. In addition to these three verbal operants, Skinner (1957) also presents the echoic, textual, transcriptive, and copying-a-text relations. These “elementary operants” are viewed as separate functional units that serve as the basis for building more advanced language skills. The emphasis on speaker and listener behaviors as independent repertoires is an equally important component of Skinner’s analysis.
The focus on language as learned behavior with the verbal operants as the functional unit provides an alternative framework for language assessment. The first published program that used Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior for assessment was the Parsons Language Sample (Spradlin, 1963). Spradlin was a pioneer in the use of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior and inspired a number of follow-up projects (e.g., Partington & Sundberg, 1998: Sundberg, 1983; Sundberg, Ray, Braam, Stafford, Rueber, & Braam, 1979). A more current assessment based on Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior is the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program: The VB-MAPP (Sundberg, under preparation). The VB-MAPP contains 170 milestones balanced across 3 developmental levels and 16 different verbal operants and related skills, In addition, the program includes an assessment and analysis of 22 language and learning barriers that can impede language acquisition. Collectively, these assessment data can lead to a more efficient language intervention program.
The focus on the verbal operants also provides a framework for daily language training, IEP development, and skill tracking. There are many benefits of using Skinner’s analysis as a guide for language intervention. For example, most programs fail to provide adequate mand training that involves bringing verbal responses under the functional control of motivational variables (Michael, 2007). Many programs also fail to identify the intraverbal repertoire as separate from the tact and mand. However, verbal stimulus control as it relates to intraverbal behavior is extremely complex and usually involves verbal conditional discriminations (Catania, 1998). The failure to include formal training on these critical verbal repertoires can have a significant impact on the development of intellectual, academic, and social behaviors. Additional concepts from Verbal Behavior that can benefit language intervention include, for example, automatic reinforcement, multiple control, audience control, private events, verbal extensions, and autoclitics (Greer & Ross, 2007; Sundberg, 2007; Sundberg & Michael, 2001).
A Functional Analysis of Verbal Responses
Another application of Verbal Behavior involves a descriptive functional analysis of verbal behaviors emitted by children during natural verbal interactions. When developing a child’s verbal skills, it is important that an analysis of verbal responses be conducted on a regular basis. The elements of this analysis consist of the same basic principles of behavior used to analyze nonverbal behavior (Skinner, 1957). Each operant can be susceptible to unwanted sources of control, at all levels of verbal development. It is quite common for children with autism to acquire verbal responses that appear correct, but are not under the same sources of control that may evoke the same verbal behaviors on the part of a typically developing child. For example, a child with autism may learn to say “I have a red shirt on,” but it may be evoked by totally different antecedent variables than those variables that evoke the same response from a typically developing child. A major goal of the intervention program is to ensure that a target response is under the correct source of control. The task for the behavior analysts is to determine what the correct source of control should be, and how that source can be established. The failure to conduct a functional analysis of verbal responses may result in rote or defective verbal repertoires that become difficult to change.
In addition to the applications of verbal behavior presented above, there are a number of other behavioral teaching procedures and strategies suggested by a verbal behavior analysis of language (Table 1). These strategies should not be viewed as the defining elements of the application of verbal behavior to language instruction, but rather simply as procedures that, like other behavioral procedures, may depend on a number of other variables in order to be effective for an individual child.
Verbal behavior teaching strategies
Early mand training
Frequent opportunities to mand
Use of the MO to teach the other operants
Contriving and capturing MOs
Use of multiple control procedures
Use of multiple exemplar training
Establishing verbal conditional discriminations
Intraverbal teaching procedures
Speaker–listener dyad training
Listener responding by function, feature, and class
Typical language development as a curriculum guide
Stimulus-stimulus pairing procedures/ Auto S r
Interspersal techniques (“Mixed VB”)
Behavioral momentum procedures
Errorless learning procedures
Using transfer of stimulus control procedures
Minimal use of punishment
First trial data and probe data
Discrete trial as well as natural environment training (or incidental teaching)
Teaching social skills as combinations of verbal, nonverbal, and listener repertoires
Use of independent play and social play procedures
The child’s daily schedule and IEPs are driven by the elementary verbal operants
Behavior analysis has made several contributions to the treatment of children with autism. Most notably has been the use of behavioral teaching procedures derived from applied behavior analysis (e.g., Lovaas, 2003). The use of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior as the conceptual basis of the language program can add to the existing gains in autism treatment (Sundberg & Michael, 2001). The application of Skinner’s analysis consists of: 1) the use of basic applied behavior analysis procedures; 2) the use of Skinner’s functional analysis of verbal behavior; 3) the use of the verbal operants for language assessment; 4) the use of the verbal operants as a basis for intervention; 5) the use of a functional analysis of verbal behavior to analyze all aspects of verbal development, including language barriers; and 6) the use of teaching strategies that are suggested, in part, by a verbal behavior analysis of language.
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