Why vocal isn’t always verbal, and not all verbal is vocal.


Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol. 1(2).

By Benjamin N. Witts, PhD, BCBA

St. Cloud State University

I work with many students across the world who are working in various companies offering in-home and center-based treatments for individuals with developmental disabilities. Some of these companies are large, well-known, and are powerhouses in the field of developmental disabilities. Other companies are new, small, and are working to make amazing change in their respective communities. Regardless of the company’s size, location, age, or history of producing peer-reviewed journal articles, a common theme runs across most… they confuse verbal and vocal-verbal behavior.

I should be clear, though. It’s not just confusing two terms that’s the issue. The real issue is what these terms are said to “represent.” Let me provide you with a sample sentence:

“MV is a 3-year-old male diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He is nonverbal and communicates using PECS.”

I will use this sentence to show where two mistakes are made. First, nonverbal is incorrect in this sentence, and second, the child did not actually “communicate.” Let us start with the first.

Nonverbal and Non-vocal

Before we can articulate what is meant by “nonverbal” and “non-vocal,” we first have to clarify what is meant by “verbal” and “vocal.”

Skinner defined verbal behavior as “behavior reinforced through the mediation of other persons” (1957, p. 2) and that the listener’s responses “have been conditioned precisely in order to reinforce the behavior of the speaker” (p. 225, emphasis removed) with said conditioning resulting from cultural practices (p. 226). That’s certainly a mouthful! Perhaps some unpacking will help here.

By stating that reinforcement is mediated through other persons means that we need a speaker and a listener. This makes contacting reinforcement indirect, rather than direct. For example, I can ask someone to go make me a copy of a journal article (indirect), or I can go do it myself (direct). Now, it is true that the speaker and listener can be the same person, but for now, let’s skip over that aspect of verbal behavior (but not at the expense of downplaying its significance in an analysis of verbal behavior).

When we bring in cultural or group practices to bear upon the listener’s behavior—the one who reinforces the speaker’s verbal behavior—we work to restrict the types of listener behavior that can be identified as verbal. Consider two boxers in a boxing ring. Boxer A’s behavior, punching, can be reinforced when Boxer B engages in certain behavior, such as stumbling and falling over. It is true that Boxer A’s behavior can only be reinforced when Boxer B responds accordingly. However, we would not necessarily call this interaction verbal behavior as no training is necessary for Boxer B to respond in this manner. The boxers’ behavior is nonverbal.

As you read this article, you are serving as the listener to my verbal behavior (of which this article is the product of said verbal behavior). Writing (and reading) requires special training, and without someone to read this article, I would not be very likely to produce it. My behavior, that of typing, is verbal.

Within verbal behavior there are many functional relations, and each functional relation can be produced across a wide array of modes. For example, reading this article makes the verbal product visual. Other modes include auditory (hearing), tactile (braille), and so forth. The mode is determined by how the listener contacts the verbal product—not by how it is produced. For example, writing this article is achieved via physical movements and tactile stimulation (i.e., my fingers on the keys). But what you, the listener, interacts with is the visual stimulus that is the verbal product.

Focusing on the auditory mode, we come to see that there are several response classes that produce auditory products. For example, clapping hands can produce applause, which is a type of verbal behavior contacted by the listener through auditory verbal products. What we are most concerned with here is the class known as vocal behavior which makes use of the vocal musculature in producing auditory products. We must be careful, though, in distinguishing between vocal behavior, vocal-verbal behavior, auditory products, and auditory verbal products. As we will see, vocal need not be verbal.

As I sit here writing, I am fairly tired. I let out a big yawn. My yawn is audible to anyone nearby, though it need not be heard. My behavior does not change because of my yawn (ignore the fact that I’m writing about it!), and no one near me responds to it. Was my yawn verbal? In some cases, it might be. I might yawn to indicate to dinner guests that it is time for them to leave. I might yawn simply because I am tired, and I produce this behavior with no forethought or additional stimulus control. In some cases, the yawn is audible and is produced because having done so under similar conditions in the past has resulted in a preferred outcome. These cases are cases where my yawn, which is vocal, is also verbal. Thus, I have engaged in vocal-verbal behavior. Other times I yawn in the absence of verbal relations, thus making my behavioral vocal behavior.

It is here where we can revisit the earlier confusion. To say someone is nonverbal but communicates through PECS is simply wrong. Verbal behavior is produced in many ways and is contacted through many modes. PECS is a visual mode of contact, and it is still verbal. What the behavior analyst meant to say was “MV is a 3-year-old male diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He does not produce vocal-verbal behavior, but communicates using PECS.”

This statement distinguished between vocal behavior, vocal-verbal behavior, and verbal behavior in general.

But wait! There’s another major issue in that statement. We would be incorrect to say that the individual “communicates.” But why is this a problem, too?!

Verbal behavior does not communicate anything (cf. Skinner, 1957, Chapter 5). Communication can imply at least two things. First, communication implies that there is something communicated from one organism to another—that the behavior somehow transfers a bit of something from one organism, perhaps in its “mind,” to the other organism, perhaps to its short-term memory storehouse. This idea is, of course, not in line with any behavioral analysis I know of. The other implication in the term “communication” lies with the belief that a word (statement, etc.) stands for something else. To say the word “bread” communicates the object bread, or stands for it, is simply not correct. The word bread and the object we label bread are not the same. If they were, then I could make my wife very happy on our anniversary by simply saying “Diamond earrings.” Unfortunately for me, the word and the object are not the same thing. The words we use are arbitrary and culturally-bound. There is no reasons “bread” needs to be related to a starchy product used to make sandwiches.

Instead, we can think of words as products of stimulus control, culturally-bound. For example, for what does “shot” stand? Consider the following; “The doctor gave me a shot,” “He took the shot and scored, winning the game,” “The car is just shot… time to get a new one.” In these cases, there is no one meaning for shot. That is, shot did not communicate one thing or relation. The meaning, then, is to be found in the conditions under which the verbal behavior was produced. Nothing is communicated.


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  1. How would you correct that statement to eliminate the word “communicates”? The child talks, requests, comments using PECS?

    • Yes! The implication here (and from Skinner) is that “communicate” connotes something other than behavior.

    • Gabriela Preciat July 29, 2016 at 4:34 am

      I would have said “MV is a 3-year-old male diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He is non-vocal and engages in verbal behaviour through the use of PECS”

  2. So first is “communication implies that there is something communicated from one organism to another—that the behavior somehow transfers a bit of something from one organism, perhaps in its “mind,” to the other organism, perhaps to its short-term memory storehouse.”
    Then if my son who does not produce vocal verbal behavior hands a picture of bread to me: it is a behavior that transfers a bit of something from one organism (him), perhaps in its “mind,” to the other organism (me). Then under your own definition of communication he would have JUST communicated to me what he wants. Bread.

    • Yeah, I think the author of this article is being quite rigid in how we use these words to describe what they are intended to mean. Yes, correct language is extremely important especially in behavioural analysis and psychology in general. But I do believe that if the BT says the child uses non-vocal verbal behaviour and PECS to communicate, most of us know what the BT is trying to say. As long as the parents of the child and the therapy team are clear, I believe that using the word “communicate” as in the original example given here is fine. Why complicate everything even further? In my expeirence (as an autism specialist) this particular discussion on communication would likely confuse most of my clients and therapists. I like the clarification on mom-vocal verbal behaviour and there are many other good points made in this article as well. Sometimes it’s best to keep it as simple as possible though, in my opinion.

  3. sorry, non-verbal, not mom-verbal!!!

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