Hi, my name is Hannah Ritchie. I am a BCBA and Program Supervisor for an introductory pod at our Winona Center. In an introductory pod, we intake new clients and work on teaching imitation, labeling, following directions, basic social skills, and setting up a child’s main form of communication. My focus of this blog will be teaching communication through a verbal analysis of behavior using the 7 verbal operants. I will then give some pointers on how to start teaching communication!

In ABA, we put a heavy emphasis on teaching communication because it is essential for both understanding a child’s needs and preferences and a big part of social interactions! A child who can’t explain what they want may use less socially appropriate attempts to get their needs known. That tantrum may be their way of asking for your attention, trying to get that toy that they wanted, or telling you that they aren’t ready to follow the instruction you gave. Our goal is to replace the inappropriate behaviors with a functional response, regardless of the form of that response.

BF Skinner (1957) outlined a verbal analysis of behavior, a way of looking at language that focuses on the function of communication rather than the form of communication and takes into consideration a variety of environmental factors that can affect language. For form of communication think: how does a child communicate? Forms of communication could include vocals, a picture exchange communication system, sign language, or a high tech communication systems such as an iPad. For function of communication think: what is the child trying to get through communicating? Skinner identified 7 functional categories, called verbal operants:

Mand: requesting for something

Example: Child sees a piece of candy and says “candy,” child gets a piece of candy

Echoic: imitating exactly what was said

Example: Adults says “Say mom,” child says “mom”

Tact: labeling an item that is present

Example: Adult points at a car and says “What is it?” Child says “car”

Intraverbal: answering questions without an item that is present

Example: Adult asks “What do you do with scissors?” Child says “cut”

Textual: Reading written words

Example: Reading the word “cat”

Transcriptive: Writing and spelling words that someone speaks to you

Example: Adult says, “Write ball” Child writes “ball”

Copying a text: Writing exactly what was written

Example: Child reads the word “dinosaur” and writes the word “dinosaur”

These operants are the basic building blocks of more advanced language. When first working on building language it is important focus on teaching echoics, mands, and then expanding to tacts, and intraverbals. The techniques below follow a guide created by Sundbeg and Partington (1998). Again, these functions of communication are relevant regardless of the form the child is using to communicate.

1) Teach echoics

Model the sound (e.g., “ee” or “oh”) or word that you want the child to repeat. If the child imitates the sound or word, provide a lot of praise and reward them with preferred toys, treats, or activities! In the beginning, accept any approximation to the sound or word. For example, if you are trying to have the child say “mom,” you could accept “mm” as a great attempt and provide a reward. Continue shaping the sound to be closer and closer to the word you want. If the child does not respond or gives an incorrect response, prompt them with the correct response no more than three times before moving on.

2) Teach mands

Choose an item that the child really likes to begin with. Like really, really likes. Hold it up for them to see or temporarily block access to the item, creating a desire or motivation to ask for the item. Here’s where the echoics come in again! Model the word for the child (for example, “Ball”). Accept any approximation or form (saying “Bah,” giving a picture of a ball, the sign for ball), deliver the item immediately while naming it again, and give a lot of praise (“Yes, that’s a ball! Great work!). The more times they hear the word, the better! If you get no response or an incorrect response, wait a few seconds then prompt the child to respond with the correct word/picture/sign before giving them the item. The trick is to create desire without making them think they can’t have it or they’ll walk away or get frustrated quickly.

3) Teach labels

Begin with basic labels of items or pictures of items that the child sees in their environment all of the time. You may want to begin with functional items such as a chair or a shirt. Make sure to have them label multiple different versions of the item. For example, not all dogs look alike but they are all dogs. This will help them generalize to new items that they see. Expand to talking about parts of items (“The car has a wheel”), what items are a type of (“A dog is a pet”), and what you do with an item (“You eat with a fork”). Understanding what an item is and how you use it helps you to understand how to talk about it in a conversation. Reminder, a child can label an item by using their iPad or a sign if they are not able to vocalize the response.

4) Teach intraverbals

Now take away the visual cues of having the item or picture in front of the child and ask questions! Here is where you can introduce “Wh” questions (who, what, where, when, why, which, and how). Build from answering single questions into having a back-and-forth conversation. Create stories. Continue to build their grammar and sentence structure.

Overall, keep looking for opportunities where your child is interested and motivated to practice, practice, practice! At the beginning of language development, you want to focus first on echoics and mands and then expand to tacts and intravebals. No matter what form of communication a child uses, they can learn to use their language to imitate, request, label and have conversations. Building a child’s language cannot only make it easier to figure out what they need, but also improve the quality of their lives and help their personalities shine through.


Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behaviour. Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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