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A Behavioral Approach to Teaching Language

What It Is and Why Its Useful
D E f I c I ts I n c O M M U n I cat I O n sk I lls can b E O n E O f t H E b I G G E st c H all E n G E s , n O t O nlY f O R c H I l D R E n w I t H a U t I s M , b U t f O R t H E I R pa R E nts , s I bl I n G s , ca R E G I V E R s , t E ac H E R s an D t H E R ap I sts as w E ll .


autism learn to communicate effectively, we must look not only at what they are saying, but why they are saying it. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), we call this why the function. This article will discuss the various functions of language, a behavioral approach to language assessment and intervention, and why this approach is useful.

ABA is the eld dedicated to applying the principles of behavior, discovered through scientic research, to changing behavior for the purpose of improving the lives of individuals. Behavior is dened as anything a person says or does, and the job of behavior analysts is to understand why a behavior is occurring. In order to analyze and understand the function

It is not enough to teach children what a word means; we have to teach them how to ask for what they want, comment on the world around them, answer questions and have conversations. We want our kids to communicate for the right reasons and for this communication to be natural and spontaneous. To help children with


of certain behavior, behavior analysts examine the behavior in relation to the environment; specically, what is occurring immediately before a behavior occurs (the antecedent) and what consequence follows the behavior. By understanding under which circumstances a behavior is likely to occur, we can create environments that foster learning and skill acquisition (i.e., increase positive behaviors) and decrease undesirable behaviors. This is an especially empowering and encouraging point of view for parents and educators faced with the challenge of teaching children with language delays.

Common Scenarios
Language is divided into two categories: what the child understands, or receptive language; and what a child says, or expressive language. Children with language delays often exhibit decits in one or both of these areas, and educators are then faced with the responsibility to design programs to teach these skills. Therefore, it is common to see goals in a childs Individualized Education Plan (IEP), such as, Tyler will increase his vocabulary to include 200 words or Julia will speak in 2- to 3-word phrases. These are, of course, worthwhile goals, but they do not tell us about the circumstances in which the child should be able to communicate. For example, if a child learns to say 200 new words when he or she is shown an object and asked, Whats this? we would say the rst sample IEP goal mentioned above was met. What we would not know is whether this child would be able to say any of these new words in other types of situations. For example, a child may be able to repeat the word spoon after hearing someone say spoon or upon seeing a spoon at the dinner to get their spoon. However, we may observe later when the child wants to eat his

ice-cream and has no spoon that he is unable to ask for a spoon, and instead begins to cry, scream or hit. In this example, even though it is, he is not able to appropriately ask when he needs a spoon.

Scenarios such as these are encountered by parents and educators on a daily basis, and suggest that a behavioral account of language may useful for assessing and teaching communication to children with autism and other developmental

table, and may be able to follow an instruction appears that the child knows what a spoon


...behavior is anything a person says or does; therefore, from a behavior analytic perspective, language is behavior.

learned given new circumstances (e.g., Lerman et al., 2005; Miguel, Petursdottir, & Carr, 2005; Partington & Bailey, 1993). Therefore, to communicate effectively, it is often not enough for a child to simply learn the meaning of a word; they must know how and when to use it.

something) or aversive stimulation (i.e., wanting something stopped or removed). The mand usually species what the individual wants and is generally followed by someone getting what they want or removing something they do not want. Following is an example:
A child wants candy, so she asks for candy by saying, candy (or signing, candy or handing an adult a picture of candy), and she gets candy. In this example, the mand is, candy. Not having any candy (deprivation) and wanting candy evokes the response, candy, and results in getting candy.

A Behavioral Approach to Teaching Communication

As stated before, behavior is anything a person says or does; therefore, from a behavior analytic perspective, language is behavior. In 1957, Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote a book titled Verbal Behavior, in which he categorized what is commonly referred to as expressive language according to its function or purpose. That is, Skinner was interested in why people say things. This analysis of language has since proven to be very useful in helping behavior analysts and other educators develop procedures to teach language to children with autism.

Typically developing children mand numerous times each day; however, children with language delays may not make these types of responses without specic training. Failure to mand often leads to children getting items or attention through engaging in other types of behavior (usually unwanted or challenging behaviors, such as crying, tantrums or aggression) in order to get their needs and wants met. As such, mand assessment and training is widely considered a good starting point when teaching communication skills (Koegel & Koegel, 1995; Sundberg & Michael, 2001). Many successful interventions have focused on rst teaching mands as appropriate communicative alternatives to inappropriate behaviors (e.g., asking for a spoon instead of crying or hitting). The Tact. In simplest terms, a tact is naming or describing something that comes in contact with one of the ve

Skinner identied four functionally independent categories of verbal responses, also known as verbal operants: 1) The Mand, 2) The Tact, 3) The Echoic and 4) The Intraverbal. In each case, the form is the same (e.g., spoon); however, the function or the circumstance under which the word is emitted is very different. The Mand. In simplest terms, a mand is a request for an item, action, activity, information or the cessation of something. The mand is always preceded by states of deprivation (i.e., wanting to gain access to

disabilities. In addition, the result of over 25 years of scientic research with both children with autism and typically developing children tells us that oftentimes, children, especially early language learners, will not automatically say words they have



senseswhat someone sees, hears, feels, smells or tastes. At rst glance, the tact may easily be confused with a mand. However, it is important to understand that the verbal response, although it may be in the same form as a mand, is not occurring because the person wants to gain access to something. Instead, the person is simply stating or describing what they are encountering in their immediate environment, resulting in some form of acknowledgement or attention from others around them. Following is an example:
A child who has candy sees a boy at the park who is also eating candy. She says, Candy, Look, candy or That boy is eating candy too. Mom says, Thats right! That boy is eating candy. In this example, the child says, candy not because the child has no candy and wants candy. Rather, she says, candy because she sees someone else eating candy. The consequence that follows: Moms attention and acknowledgement that she is correct!

It is important for children with autism and language delays to learn to spontaneously tact (i.e., comment) on their environment. Without this important skill, a child is unable to engage in the kind of social exchange illustrated in this example. Tacts allow us to verbally share our experiences with others and are an important component of conversational language. The Echoic. In simplest terms, an echoic is simply repeating exactly what he or she hears (i.e., echoing). For example, hearing someone say candy and then saying, candy. Having echoic behavior is essential for learning to say words, vocabulary and foreign languages. Echoic behavior is a foundational skill necessary for meaningful vocal verbal behavior to develop. The Intraverbal. Intraverbal behavior is dened as a verbal response to a verbal stimulus (i.e., what someone else says)

Echoic behavior is a foundational skill necessary for meaningful vocal verbal behavior to develop.
that is not the same as the stimulus. For example, hearing someone else say, Ready, set., and then saying, Go! Or when asked, How are you? responding, education focuses on teaching intraverbal behavior. For example, students are expected to learn to answer numerous questions across subjects, such as, Whats 9 x 5? Dene volcano and Who was the rst president of the United States?

What to Teach: Behavioral Language Assessment

So, why is a behavioral classication of language useful and how does it relate to how and why verbal responses occur, we are able to thoroughly assess a childs language skills across the verbal operants (i.e., the mand, tact, echoic, intraverbal) rather than simply assessing a childs expressive and receptive language. In

Great! Much of elementary and secondary teaching our children? By understanding



A behavioral language assessment provides information, not only about decits in language form... but also language function...
developmentally appropriate, sequential manner.

to know the location of her juice (e.g., by offering the child a snack or asking her to, Get your juice). If needed, after the child has looked for the juice, we can provide a prompt for the child to say, Wheres the juice? When she does, we can then divulge its location so that the child can nd it. Over time, these prompts are then faded so that our kids learn to spontaneously ask for what they want and need. A common concern of parents and educators is that their child/student knows a lot of words; however, they never spontaneously use language. By analyzing language from a behavioral perspective, we take into consideration the circumstances under which responses usually occur, identify targets that are functional and meaningful to the child in their everyday life, and create situations in which the child can learn to spontaneously emit these responses. A behavioral approach to teaching language provides us with an effective and efcient way to teach, thus signicantly improving the lives of children with autism and their families. References available from authors upon request.

How to Teach: The Behavioral Approach

It is not only important to identify what to teach, but also how to teach it. A behavioral approach to teaching language offers both. It does not merely tell us addition, we are able to design language intervention programs that directly focus on teaching the skills missing from the childs verbal repertoire. A behavioral language assessment provides information, not only about decits in language form (e.g., nouns, prepositions, plurals), but also language function (e.g., mands, tacts, intraverbals). The assessment process combined with what research has taught us about the development of language in typically developing children provides us with a guide for creating language intervention programs that target skills that are developmentally appropriate for the child. Such an assessment allows us to focus on basic/fundamental skills rst (e.g., requesting/manding) and then gradually teaching more complex skills (e.g., conversational skills/intraverbals) by building upon the foundational skills in a what the child can or cannot do given certain circumstances, but it provides the information educators need to establish certain behaviors missing from a childs repertoire. For example, when teaching mands, we often make simple changes to a childs environment to provide opportunities for the child to mand. If we have determined through assessment that a child cannot ask for objects or activities that he or she wants or needs, and likes ice-cream, for example, we may present ice-cream without a spoon and provide a prompt for the child to say, spoon. When he does, we then provide a spoon. Similarly, if assessment has revealed that a child cannot ask for information (e.g., Wheres my juice?), we may place juice out of the childs view and then contrive a situation to make it likely that the child will want

Marla D. Saltzman, M.A., BCBA, is the Co-founder and Clinical Director of Autism Behavior Intervention (ABI) in north Los Angeles, and is adjunct faculty at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles. Kathleen Kelly is a Program Supervisor and Research and Development Supervisor at ABI. She is currently completing her masters degree in counseling with an ABA emphasis at the California State University, Los Angeles.