Academic journal article The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis

A Common Language: Using B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior for Assessment and Treatment of Communication Disabilities in SLP-ABA

Academic journal article The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis

A Common Language: Using B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior for Assessment and Treatment of Communication Disabilities in SLP-ABA

Article excerpt

Abstract

Professionals in the field of speech-language pathology (SLP) and applied behavior analysis (ABA) share a common goal in the treatment of communication disorders. The two fields, however, do not share a common language. Skinner's definition of verbal behavior and his classification of verbal operants provide interventionists with a valuable tool for classifying verbal behavior based on controlling variables. An understanding of the primary verbal operants and operants under multiple control are essential for planning efficient verbal behavior intervention. This paper presents a primer on B.F. Skinner's 1957 publication, Verbal Behavior, a description of the primary verbal operants, verbal operants under multiple control, and a discussion of using this taxonomy for writing precise communication goals for effective intervention.

Keywords: Speech-Language Pathology, Applied Behavior Analysis, B.F. Skinner, verbal behavior, verbal operants, communication intervention.

Introduction

During the last decade there has been a growing trend for direct collaboration between the fields of speech-language pathology (SLP) and applied behavior analysis (ABA). A common overlap between the focus of the two fields is in the area of communication assessment and intervention for the purposes of enhanced interaction skills and management of inappropriate behaviors resulting from inadequate communication skills (Koenig and Gerenser, 2006). Disagreements among professionals from both fields often can be a result of a difference in terminology. Take for example, the definition of the term "communication." A definition adopted by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association was developed by the National Joint Committee for the Communicative needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities (1991, p. 2).

   Any act by which one person gives to or receives from another
   person information about that person's needs, desires, perceptions,
   knowledge or affective states. Communication may be intentional or
   unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals,
   may take linguistic or nonlinguistic forms, and may occur through
   spoken or other modes.

This definition emphasizes the shared meaning established between a speaker and a listener. The Joint Committee concluded, "Thus, all persons do communicate in some way." Additionally, the success of a communicative exchange could depend on the listener happening to witness the speaker's behavior and interpreting that behavior as communicative.

The 1957 publication of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior provided the field of ABA with a definition of communication. Skinner refers to "verbal behavior" as "...behavior reinforced through the mediation of other people ... (p.2)" and specified that "... the 'listener' must be responding in ways which have been conditioned precisely in order to reinforce the behavior of the speaker [by the verbal community] ..." In other words, a speaker acts in a manner that is under the stimulus control of an audience (a listener) and the listener then provides the reinforcing consequence. It is through reinforcement of a specific verbal community (the French, the English, the Spanish) that a child learns the grammar and vocabulary of a particular community.

The definitions from both fields emphasize that communication can occur in many modalities, not just the spoken modality. A source of confusion in the field of SLP has been in defining the terms "speech," "language," "communication," and "verbal." Reports of a student including phrases such as "not verbal," or "non-verbal," can lead to erroneous conclusions. A speech pathologist might assume that this means that the student is not yet speaking. A person using Skinner's definition would conclude that the student has no communication skills at all in any modality. The less ambiguous terminology to describe the student who is not speaking would be "non-speaking" or "non-vocal. …

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