Verbal behaviour refers to a method of teaching language through associating words and their meaning with objects and their purposes. Instead of teaching a word on its own, words are taught to be functionally applied in situations. For example, children with autism may say the word “toilet” when they see one, but may not know how to ask for one when they are in need of it. Therefore, it is important to associate words with their meaning and functions. According to B.F. Skinner, verbal behaviour includes mands (make requests), tacts (labelling), echoics (vocal imitation) and intraverbals (conversational skills).
What is Echoics?
Echoics refer to a form of verbal behaviour whereby the speaker verbally imitates the same sound or word that was said by another person. This is an essential skill in the development of vocal verbal behaviour as it increases the number and intelligibility of vocal responses. Echoics develop with exposure and imitation, and act as a precursor to other verbal operants such as mands (make requests) and tacts (labelling). This is because children absorb a large amount of information through imitation of others.
Before teaching echoics, it is important to find out what motivates the child. Motivation is key to teaching verbal behaviour as it creates an opportunity for the child to communicate for what he desires. Echoic targets are then selected according to the child’s capability. Sounds and words that are easy to repeat, heard and used often, or are associated with reinforcers are usually first used as echoic targets. For example, the names of fruits or animals that are commonly seen, nursery songs or names of the child’s favourite toys. By associating words with reinforcers, it helps the child to learn to mand (make requests). For instance, if the child enjoys playing with a ball, the sounds in the word “ball” can be emphasised while presenting the ball. This allows the child to associate the word with the visual stimulus (ball) and eventually, with gradual but frequent exposure, the child will be able to understand the meaning of the word “ball”. This improves the child’s ability to communicate and reduces unwanted behaviours such as throwing tantrums or crying.
How to teach echoics
When teaching echoics, present the reinforcer within the child’s sight to establish motivation for correct responses before presenting the echoic. Once the child correctly imitates, reinforce immediately to encourage good learning behaviour. If the child is unable to correctly imitate, present the echoic two to three more times to practice. After a few trials, if the child is still unable to reach parity, one may try an easier echoic or motor imitation instead and differentially reinforce to acknowledge the child’s effort.
Just like how toddlers learn to crawl before walking, it is essential for children to first develop pre-language skills such as imitation, gestures and other vocalisations to prepare them to use words. After all, vocal verbal behaviour is the most common form of communication as it usually requires minimal effort to respond and is readily available.
Written by Guat Shin.
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