top of page

What is Verbal Behaviour?

Verbal behaviour was developed as a concept by psychologist and behaviour analyst B.F. Skinner in his 1983 publication ‘The Behaviour of Organisms’, in which he analyses human behaviour, encompassing what is traditionally called language, linguistics, or speech. For Skinner, verbal behaviour is simply behaviour subject to the same controlling variables as any other behaviour process.

The study of verbal behavior is different from linguistics, or the study of language. Linguists are particularly concerned with the general practices of verbal communities, described in terms of the various grammars and vocabularies and phonetic units that characterize different languages. Descriptions of the form languages take don't tell us very much about the functions of those languages. Research has shown that in order to best teach communication, social and other behavioural skills we must teach according to function as opposed to form.

The distinction is important to the topic of verbal behavior because the science of verbal behavior, as part of behavior analysis, owes much to a 1957 book by B. F. Skinner called Verbal Behavior.

Research has shown that the number and quality of the words a child hears in the early years of life have a tremendous impact on the fundamental circuits in the human brain. A child's vocabulary development is closely tied to their early language experiences and to their ability to think rationally, solve problems, and reason abstractly.

According to Skinner’s research, an individual cannot have the full concept of a word unless they can understand its function, correctly associate the word to the object (the word ‘car’ to a particular toy, for example) and that the form of the word is meaningless unless it is given a relatable and specific context. Only then can the child understand the concept of the abstract word in relation to real, everyday objects (such as knowing that the word ‘car’ will in a child’s case relate to a toy car that they like to play with).


Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning. This deals with the modification of voluntary behaviour or operant behaviour. Operant behaviour "operates" on the environment and is maintained by its consequences, while classical conditioning deals with the conditioning of respondent behaviours that are elicited by antecedent conditions. Skinner translated this principle into the use of language amongst children displaying behavioural challenges including autism. His groundbreaking work theorised that language is best learned for its function rather than just its forms. As a result, a new discipline arose that allowed those with linguistic challenges to understand the true context of a word rather than just its basic form.

Achieving effective communication is done by teaching this true meaning of a word rather than just its form in the shape of its construction as a collection of letters. The principle is that children, once they understand the actual meaning of a word, are better able to communicate and thus the necessity to engage in inappropriate behaviour as a result of frustration of being unable to communicate their feelings is reduced. Many psychologists and traditional programmes still maintain that a child, regardless of the effects of autism or other cognitive deficits, will be able to speak expressively if they understand the effects of language in one operant. We do not consider this to be the fact in every case and believe that Skinner’s approach to function rather than form is a more effective method of enhancing communication skills in children and young adults who suffer from a range of cognitive difficulties and restrictions.

We can now see that our learners with autism and developmental delays may not in fact have cognitive deficits. We simply need to teach our learners a better way to learn.


Research has overwhelmingly supported the use of Verbal Behaviour techniques and consequently more effective techniques have been developed since Skinner’s groundbreaking work established the practice. These techniques help experts aid learners with autism and other developmental disabilities to reach their maximum potential, be able to communicate more effectively with those around them and reduces their frustration and so inappropriate behaviour.

The main focus of Applied Behaviour Analysis is now on Natural Environment Teaching (NET). This uses children’s naturally occurring motivations to encourage spontaneous conversational skills. By using outside, everyday stimuli such as a supermarket, a birthday party or on holiday, the child’s natural curiosity in their surroundings is used as a basis for language developmental techniques.

Many of the learners who embark on NET initially do not have the motivation to engage fully in activities or a learning process because they haven’t been taught how this engagement can lead to greater communication skills that allow them to relate to their peers more successfully. By encouraging them to interact with their surroundings in a more positive way, NET promotes the natural development of linguistic skills through a process of association with the learner’s environment and the stimulus received from activities and items. By correlating this association and experience with the function of related words, language skills are enhanced.

Using the principles of ABA, we can help parents understand their child’s behaviour patterns and potential trigger points that can initiate behavioural difficulties, as well as techniques that engage the child in more positive behavioural aspects that encourage communication. At NETwork Interventions, we realise that these situations can be daunting but our team is here to support you every step of the way. The more effectively your child can communicate, the less need they have to engage in inappropriate behaviour.

Can we say that vb doesn’t just focus on ‘verbal’. That vb a science, is used to teach every skill needed for our learners to lead fulfilling and happy lives, achieving their maximum potential? Could we also say that it is a common misconception that VB is somehow different to ABA. ABA is simply the science of how behaviour works, and is used in many settings from developmental delays through to the workplace. VB is the application of skinner’s functional analysis of language to the principles of ABA and can be used to best teach typically developing children, those with developmental delays, depression and stroke patients, through to shaping work performance and behaviours.

A new concept in the operants of language
Seeing real results
bottom of page