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 An Overview of Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB)


Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB, occasionally called VBA) is an approach to therapy which utilizes the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)[a] to shape and strengthen a client’s verbal behavior based on the theoretical framework laid by eminent behaviorist BF Skinner[b]. It is important to note that the methods and fundamentals of AVB are an application of ABA – the distinction lies within the behaviors targeted1. The emphasis of AVB therapy is on functional language as opposed to the structural (grammar) language trained in many other approaches to therapy. It is also important to note that from a behavior-analytic perspective, “verbal behavior” does not only include vocalizations and speech. Rather, it refers more generally to behavior for which reinforcement2 is delivered by another person in the social environment. Thus, sign language and other modalities of communication that do not involve vocalizations are considered verbal behavior and can be influenced via principles of operant conditioning3 (based on antecedent conditions, behavior, and consequences) in the same manner as verbal behavior which is spoken.

For language to “work”, it must have an effect upon the environment, rather than merely being spoken/pronounced correctly by the child. Simply having the ability to say the word “candy”, does not allow the child to use the word functionally. If the child is taught to use the word to ask for candy, as well as label candy as an item, converse about candy, and identify candy, the word serves more functions and has a greater probability of being used correctly. Using the word in the proper context allows the child to contact a positive reinforcer for saying “candy”, which will strengthen the response and increase the future probability of the child using that word. Just like adults would not walk around saying “new car” for no reason, a child will not speak words with great frequency when there is no reinforcement available for it – they must be motivated. By capturing a child’s motivation, and delivering reinforcing consequences, functional language skills can be trained [c]. Accordingly, the first set of responses trained are requests for desired items (these are called mands – a term derived from the words “demand” and “command”). If the child has a strong desire for candy, it will be much easier to teach him or her to ask for candy than it would be to train him or her to ask for “dentist visit”, because the child can say or sign a word and receive an item that is desired (a reinforcer[4]).

Further, it is important that the child’s new skills can generalize or be applied to new situations. If a child is only trained to call one certain picture of an airplane “airplane”, and only learns it in one setting, there is a chance that he or she will not be able to label the airplane that flies overhead 10 minutes after the child leaves his or her therapy session. By training under diverse environmental conditions with a wide variety of stimuli, skills have a greater probability of transferring to additional settings[d] or being applied in novel ways that were not explicitly trained[e]. Toward the aim of applying new skills, it is necessary that the skills trained be as fine-grained, and the units as small as possible. To illustrate, a child who learns the entire phrase “I want juice” in one block may not be able to use these words individually and functionally. That is, applying the word “I…” when appropriate; “I” want…” to something else that is desired, and applying “juice” to another situation.



1: It is very important to point out that within any approach there is considerable variability from one practitioner to the next. There is no standardized ABA or AVB method applied without variation across providers. Theoretical and practical differences arise based on the therapist and/or supervisor’s training and familiarity with the relevant literature. When you hear terms like ABA, Discrete Trials, ITT, Lovaas Therapy, AVB, and the like, keep in mind that they are all based on Behavior Analysis and are not radically different. Rather, they are different methods of applying the same science to therapy. Thus, I would generally recommend that you be more concerned with the training and competence of your therapist than which major application they support. Haphazard application of any of these approaches will fail compared to competent application of another.


2: A process in which a behavior is strengthened (i.e., the behavior's frequency, rate, duration, intensity) as a function of an event that occurs as a consequence of, or contingent on, the response.


3: A simple definition is an increase or decrease in behavior as a function of the consequences that follow responses.


4. An event which follows the occurrence of a behavior and increases the future probability of the occurrence of that behavior. Note that merely wanting or liking something does not make it a reinforcer. The child must actually work for it, and it must strengthen the response it follows to truly function as a reinforcer.


Jesse Anderson

Revised by: Jill Greising-Murschel



a. Baer, D. M., Wolf, M.M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-97


b. Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group.


c. Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1975). Incidental teaching of language in the preschool. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8, 411-420.


d. Handelman, J. S. (1979). Generalization of autistic-type children of verbal responses across settings. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 12, 273-282.


e. Nuzzolo-Gomez, R., & Greer, R. D. (2004). Emergence of untaught mands or tacts of novel adjective-object pairs as a function of instructional history. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 20, 63-76.


The following links were chosen to help parents learn more about ABA therapy and the resources available to them:




  • Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies - A great site to learn about many factors of behavior analysis.  Includes some very good overviews of behavior analysis, an extensive glossary of terms, links to sites on many topic, and a bookstore.


  • This link contains an extensive set of links on a wide array of topics in behavior analysis.  The complexity of the material ranges from simple overviews to advanced academic topics:








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