Teaching Language that Sticks

Educational and Natural Tacts: What’s the Difference?

Guest Blog by: Judah Axe, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA

Simmons College

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is widely recognized for its documented empirical evidence in teaching functional skills to children with autism. One of the most important skills we can teach is the development of language. In this regard, the influence of Skinner’s (1957) analysis of verbal behavior for teaching language to young learners with autism has been most evident in recent years. Skinner defined many verbal operants in this seminal book, but he referred to the tact as “the most important of verbal operants” (p. 83). He defined the tact as: “a verbal operant in which a response of given form is evoked (or at least strengthened) by a particular object or event …We account for the strength by showing that in the presence of the object or event, a response of that form is characteristically reinforced in a given verbal community” (pp. 81-82). In less technical terms we can refer to the tact as a label of a nonverbal stimulus.

Different Types of Tacts?

Although the function of the tact is clear, are there different types of tacts? It appears that Skinner distinguished between “educational tacts” and “natural tacts.” Skinner wrote about “educational tacts:” “A child is taught the names of objects, colors, and so on when some generalized reinforcement (for example, Right!) is made contingent upon a response which bears an appropriate relation to the current stimulus” (p. 84). He suggested educational tacts may be augmented by the listener’s mand, “What is it?” Further, he wrote that the generalized reinforcement is “‘educational’ reinforcement…supplied primarily because it establishes and maintains a form of behavior in the speaker” (p. 84).

Photo Credit: Photo by Airman st Class Dennis Sloan 

Educational tacts are often targeted in “tact training” in ABA-based programs with children with autism and other language delays. During the training the therapist will present objects or pictures one at a time and use prompts, fading, and reinforcement to establish tacts. Once a child can tact many objects and pictures, we say the child has a strong tact repertoire. But, an important question is: Does the child tact objects and pictures when he is away from the intensive teaching table and therapist? The answer is often “no.” To analyze why, we examine antecedents and consequences for tacting in light of Skinner’s definition.

In terms of consequences, the reinforcers for educational tacts in ABA-based programs are often not social generalized conditioned reinforcers, such as praise and attention; rather, they are often food and tokens. If praise and attention do not function as reinforcers at the table, they will likely not function as reinforcers away from the table. In terms of antecedents, Skinner (1957) wrote: “Another property may be the novelty of the occasion. Familiar objects lose their control because the community eventually withholds reinforcement except under special conditions. Only objects which are unusual in some respect, or which occur in unusual surroundings, are important to the listener and hence provide the occasion for reinforcing the speaker. A pool table at the bottom of a swimming pool, a fire hydrant in the parlor, or a seal in the bedroom are more likely to evoke tacts than the same objects under commonplace conditions” (pp. 89-90).

How to Teach ‘Natural’ Tacts?

So, what do ABA therapists do to promote the generalization of tacts? There are at least two available options. In terms of consequences, we can use food and tokens as reinforcers for tacts away from the table or attempt to condition praise as a reinforcer using pairing procedures. In terms of antecedents, we can use objects and pictures that are interesting, novel, and out of the ordinary. Maybe this is silly glasses, a mask, or a new poster on the wall. This antecedent variable is like the antecedent variable in the analysis of initiating joint attention. This analysis of joint attention, as described by Dube et al. (2007), “will characterize the onset of the interesting event (e.g., the kitten’s entrance), in an environmental context that includes the presence of a familiar adult, as a motivating operation (MO)” (p. 199). In other words, an interesting event can increase the reinforcing effectiveness of another person’s gaze especially if that person is the child’s caregiver. The response in joint attention is also a gaze, and we can extrapolate this to tacting in which the antecedent is an interesting event, the response is a verbalization that has been previously reinforced in the presence of the event (or ones like it), and the reinforcer is praise or attention.

Given this information, we may refer to tacts evoked by a novel/interesting/out-of-the-ordinary stimulus and maintained by praise and attention as “natural tacts.” This is an appropriate term for when my 2-year-old daughter sees an airplane flying overhead and says, “Airplane!” and when a gallery owner points to part of a painting and says, “The artist used a knife to give these petals this certain character.” Given the form of reinforcement as social generalized conditioned reinforcement, we may also call these “social tacts.” ABA therapists don’t pick and choose which type of tact to teach. Rather, once children with autism or other language delays have received sufficient training of “educational tacts,” we aim to target “natural/social tacts” by programming out-of-the-ordinary antecedents and praise and attention as reinforcers.