What is Verbal Behavior?

Verbal Behavior is the behavioral analysis of language. B. F. Skinner’s functional analysis of language provides a framework for further assessment and treatment of language based upon the function the word or action serves in the learner’s environment rather than its form. Skinner proposed that “meaning” of language is acquired due to the environmental events that change when the word or action occurs rather than an innate ability to “understand” the word itself. In keeping with this definition verbal behavior may include vocal words, sign language, exchanging a picture to receive an item (PECs), written language, gestures, etc. Skinner provided us with units of analysis referred to as verbal operants. By applying behavior analytic principles and procedures using verbal operants as a unit of measure, we are able to assess and treat language systematically and individually for each learner. (Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.)

Due to the broad range of deficits observed in learners with ASD, language delays and/or errors in “auditory processing,” assessment and treatment using Skinner’s verbal operants is of particular importance.

Examples of B. F. Skinner’s verbal operants:

Verbal Operant





Person present and child is hungry

Child says, “Apple”

The apple is delivered to the child


Person is present and child sees an apple on a tree

Child says, “Apple”

Mom says, “Wow, it is an apple! I didn’t see that apple – good looking!”


Mom says, “Apple”

Child says, “Apple”

Mom says, “Good saying apple!” and hugs child.


Child is asked at dinner time, “What did you eat at lunch?”

Child says, “Apple” (no apple is in sight)

Dad says, “I am so glad you ate your apple! You made a healthy choice!”


Written word apple is present

Child says, “Apple”

Teacher says, “Good reading! That word is apple.”


Teacher says, “Spell the word – apple.”

Child writes: a-p-p-l-e

Teacher says, “Good spelling the word apple that is correct!”