Verbal Operants: What They Are, Types And Functioning

Verbal Operants

The psychologist BF Skinner called communication skills “Verbal Behavior”; Specifically, it consists of the set of vocal or non-vocal operant behaviors intended to be socially reinforced.

Skinner differentiated 6 verbal operants, each with its own function and meaning. They all revolve around language. In this article we will learn what each of them consists of.

Verbal operants and verbal behavior according to Skinner

Psychologist BF Skinner (1957) defined verbal behavior as behavior whose reinforcement is mediated by another person. Teaching verbal repertoires is essential to promote independent development in children, and that is why it should be one of the objectives of their education or of the different interventions that we can apply.

Verbal operants are different functions that we find within both vocal and non-vocal verbal behavior. Are were explained by BF Skinner in his book Verbal Behavior (1957). In this work the author analyzes the verbal behavior of people, traditionally called language, linguistics or speech.

There are a total of 6 verbal operants: echoic, commands, tacts, intraverbals, autoclitics and textual response, which we will see explained below.

Types of verbal operants

BF Skinner differentiates and defines several types of verbal operants:

1. Echoic

The speaker repeats exactly what another speaker says. It has point-by-point correspondence with the preceding verbal stimulus. It is an imitation of vocal verbal behavior. For example, it would be when a parent says “garlic” to his baby and the baby repeats “garlic.”

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2. Command

It is a type of verbal operant in which the speaker requests, requests or suggests something you need. The command can be vocal or non-vocal.

Here the antecedent is a state of deprivation, satiation, or motivational conditions of the person. It requires the presence of a listener to provide the stimulus that acts as a reinforcer. For example, it would be when a child is thirsty and says “water.”

3. Touch

Here the speaker names objects and actions with which it has direct contact through any of the sensory modalities. In this case the antecedent is a non-verbal physical stimulus, such as seeing an airplane.

It is controlled by generalized social reinforcement. An example would be when a child sees a car and says “car”; His mother tells him “Yes, honey, it’s a car, very good” (she reinforces him).

4. Intraverbal

The person responds differentially to the verbal behavior of others, that is, respond to specific statements or questions.

Here the antecedent stimulus is a verbal stimulus that controls the response, but has no point-by-point correspondence with the antecedent. For example, it would be when one child says “Hello” and the other responds “Hello, how are you?”

5. Autoclitics

Autoclitic verbal operants are non-vocal, and modify the effects of elementary verbal operants (commands, tacts, echoics and intraverbals) on the listener. For example, it would be saying “I want the red car”; In this case, “I want” and “red” are the autoclitics with which the command is being specified.

6. Textual Response

Is what we understand when reading, by reading, without entering into the general understanding of the text. It can be vocal if read aloud, or non-vocal if read “silently.” For example, it’s about what the reader is doing right now with this article by reading it.

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echoic operants

We are going to go into a little more detail about the verbal operants of the echoic type, since they are one of the most important when it comes to enhancing language development.

This type of operant consists of a “hear-say” correspondence. For this reason has a topographical similarity (called point-to-point similarity) and formal (that is, it has the same sensory modality) with the verbal stimulus that controls it. Let’s look at an example:

As we have already seen in an example, let’s think of an educator who says: “MA”. And the student repeats: “MA”. The educator reinforces this response to increase the probability that in the future she will say “MA” again when the verbal stimulus “MA” is presented.


Parroting is an early stage of children’s development, in which produce vocalizations that are automatically reinforced; These are sounds from the context that surrounds them. These are not imitations, but simply vocal sounds, vocalizations. Parroting should be checked if it exists before teaching verbal or echoic operants.

Parroting is a stage that precedes the echoic function; However, if it is not observed, there are a series of procedures and methods to induce it. An example to induce it is the stimulus-stimulus pairing procedure (Sundberg, 1996).

Thus, parroting is necessary for echoic responses to develop. In this way, the emission of the parroting response could be a crucial step in the development of echoic responses, and may be an early higher-order verbal operant.

Function of echoic behavior

Echoic behavior has the function of allowing that the child learns the ability to repeat other people’s sounds, whether they are mothers, fathers, teachers or educators. It also represents the basis for learning other verbal operants, such as tacts and commands.

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