Skinner's Verbal Operants - Hidden Talents ABA

Decoding Skinner’s Verbal Operants: Mands, Tacts, and More

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January 1, 2024 Decoding Skinner’s Verbal Operants: Mands, Tacts, and More

In the realm of psychology, few names are as recognizable as B.F. Skinner. Known for his theories on behaviorism, Skinner revolutionized the way we understand human behavior. Among his most influential contributions is the concept and analysis of verbal behavior through "verbal operants." This article will delve into the nuances of Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior through operants – mands, tacts, and listener responding, providing a comprehensive understanding of these critical behavioral concepts.

a kid with autism was reading out loud | Decoding Skinner's Verbal Operants: Mands, Tacts, and More

What are Verbal Operants?

Before we delve into specifics, let's first define what verbal operants are. According to Skinner, verbal operants are functional units of language, classified by the effect they have on the listener. They are distinct from mere words or sentences; instead, they represent the function of language development and the verbal response within the context it is used.

Skinner identified four primary types of verbal operants: mands, tacts, echoics, and intraverbals. Additionally, he later added two more categories: autoclitics and textuals. Let's explore each of these in detail.


In Skinner's framework, one verbal operant that is mands, that is controlled by a state of deprivation or aversive stimulation and is reinforced by the specific item or action that removes the deprivation or aversive condition. In simpler terms, a mand operant is essentially a demand or request. For example, when a child says "juice" because they are thirsty, that is a mand operant. The child is expressing a want or need, and the fulfillment of that need reinforces the behavior.


Tacts, on the other hand, are verbal operants that are controlled by nonverbal discriminative stimuli. Essentially, a tact is a comment made about the environment or a situation. For instance, if a child sees a dog and says "dog," they are tacting. The child is labeling or commenting on something in their environment.

Listener Responding

Listener responding, also known as receptive language, refers to the behavior of the listener in verbal interactions. In this case, the speaker's verbal behavior alters the behavior of the listener. For example, if someone says "look at that bird," and you turn your head to see the bird, you are demonstrating listener behavior modification by responding.

Echoics, Intraverbals, Autoclitics, and Textuals

Echoics are verbal responses that are controlled by a verbal discriminative stimulus that has point-to-point correspondence with the response. In simpler terms, echoic behavior involves repeating or echoing what someone else has said.

Intraverbals are verbal responses to other verbal behavior or stimuli where there is no point-to-point correspondence. For instance, answering a question like "What's your name?" is an intraverbal response.

Autoclitics are secondary verbal operants that modify the effect of primary operants (mands, tacts, etc.) on the listener. For example, saying "I think it's going to rain" instead of "It's going to rain" softens the assertion, making it an opinion rather than a fact.

Lastly, textuals involve reading or writing without any implications that what is being read or written is understood.

The children were telling gossip to each other.

Examples of Verbal Operants

To solidify our understanding, let's look at some examples of verbal operants:

  1. Mands: A toddler cries, "Mommy!" when he scrapes his knee. The demand here is seeking comfort or help from his mother.
  2. Tacts: Upon entering a room that's unusually warm, someone might say, "It's hot in here." This statement is a comment about the environment.
  3. Listener responding: A teacher tells her students, "Please turn to page 42." The students who follow her instructions are exhibiting listener responding behavior.
  4. Echoics: If you say "Hello" when you answer the phone and the person on the other end also responds with "Hello," they've demonstrated echoic behavior.
  5. Intraverbals: In response to the question, "How are you?" you might reply, "I'm good, thank you." This response is an intraverbal.
  6. Autoclitics: If someone says, "I believe I left my keys in the car," the phrase "I believe" serves to modify the certainty of the statement.
  7. Textuals: A student reading aloud from a textbook in class, irrespective of whether they comprehend the content, is exhibiting textual behavior.

By distinguishing these operants in everyday speech, we can better understand the functional units of language as defined by Skinner.

The Application of Verbal Operants in Parenting Children with Autism

Verbal operants can serve as a useful tool for parents of children with autism, aiding in the development of functional communication skills.

Mands, for instance, can be strategically nurtured to help a child express their needs and wants more effectively, thus reducing frustration and potential behavioral issues.

Tacts can be encouraged to foster a better understanding and engagement with the environment around them. Parents can prompt a child to label objects or describe situations, enhancing their observational skills and their ability to share experiences with others.

Listener responding can be developed to improve a child's ability to follow instructions and engage in social interactions. By presenting clear, concise instructions and reinforcing positive reinforcement for successful responses, parents can gradually expand the child's receptive language capabilities.

Echoics can be utilized to improve speech imitation skills, a crucial step in language development. Parents can model correct speech sounds and words, encouraging the child to imitate them, thus facilitating language acquisition.

Intraverbals, autoclitics, and textuals, although slightly more complex, can also be useful tools in advancing a child's conversational and reading skills. By understanding and applying Skinner's concepts, parents can play an important role in enhancing their child's communication skills and overall social development.

3 kids with autism were playing with each other.

Verbal Operants and Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy leverages the principles of verbal operants to enhance the communication skills of individuals with autism. ABA therapists focus on reinforcing positive behaviors while reducing harmful or disruptive ones, promoting functional independence and social engagement.

Mands are cultivated in ABA therapy by encouraging individuals to make requests or express needs, teaching them the cause-and-effect relationship between verbalizing a need and having it fulfilled. This fosters self-advocacy and independence.

Tacts are promoted by constantly interacting with individuals and helping them label and comment on their environment. This assists them in better understanding their surroundings and expressing thoughts or opinions about it.

Listener responding is bolstered through exercises that involve following instructions or responding appropriately to verbal cues. This reinforces the individual's attentiveness and comprehension.

Echoic responses are nurtured by having the individual repeat words or sentences to improve speech and language development. This also aids in imitation skills which are pivotal for social interactions.

Intraverbals are fostered by engaging the individual in conversation, asking questions, and encouraging them to respond, thereby enhancing their conversational skills.

Autoclitics and textuals are developed at more advanced stages of ABA therapy. Autoclitics help to refine the individual's ability to convey details or clarify their speech, while textuals promote reading and writing skills.

Through systematic application of these operants in ABA therapy, individuals with autism can significantly improve their language abilities, social interactions, and overall quality of life. The therapy can be individually tailored to meet the unique needs and goals of each individual, ensuring that they achieve the maximum possible benefit.

Verbal Operants and Nonverbal Children with Autism

Teaching these verbal operants can encourage language development in nonverbal children with autism, as learning skills within one operant can promote growth in others. For example, working on echoics can help improve a child's pronunciation and enable them to build upon their language by speaking in sentences. Furthermore, Skinner described four verbal operants - mands, tacts, intraverbals, and autoclitics - that are directly applicable to the assessment and teaching of language to children with deficient language skills.

The implementation of verbal operants in non-instructional settings has also been empirically supported, indicating the potential for the generalization of these skills beyond structured therapy sessions. Overall, the systematic teaching and reinforcement of verbal operants play a crucial role in language development for individuals with autism.


Understanding Skinner's verbal operants provides a comprehensive framework for understanding human language and communication. By categorizing verbal behaviors into mands, tacts, listener responding, and others, we can analyze and interpret spoken language in a functional and practical way that aligns with our natural behavioral patterns. These concepts not only revolutionize psychology but also offer valuable insights into speech and language therapy, education, and communication studies.

Children with autism, in particular, are encouraged through the application of these principles, empowering them to develop and expand their communication skills in meaningful ways.


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Leaf, R., & McEachin, J. (1999). A work in progress: Behavior management strategies and a curriculum for intensive behavioral treatment of autism. New York, NY: DRL Books. 

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Sundberg, M.L., & Partington, J.W. (1998). Teaching language to children with autism or other developmental disabilities 

Sundberg, M.L. (1991). 301 Research Topics from Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 9, 81-96.