Echoics: 4 Things to Know

This post continues the series about Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. Last week we spoke about Mands and their value in improving a person’s quality of life. This week we’ll talk about Echoics!

1. What are Echoics?

An echoic is a verbal operant that happens when a person repeats exactly what was just said by the first speaker. In other words, echoics are verbal imitation. An example is a teacher saying “Good morning” to a student and the student replying “Good morning”. Echoics are identical to their verbal model.

2. How do we teach Echoics?

As in all ABA programs, teaching starts with an assessment. In this case, the Early Echoics Skills Assesment (found in the VB MAPP) is an ideal tool.

Image of the VB MAPP, a verbal behaviour skills assessment.  It contains the Early Echoics Skills Assessment.

In a vocal imitation or echoics program the goal is to teach the learner the behaviour of repeating what has been said. Some people get hung up on the content of what the learner is echoing, but what’s most critical at the outset is the intention. The learner needs to understand that you want a verbal response from them. In essence, they need to understand what you’re asking them to do. Articulation can be shaped and perfected but if the learner doesn’t know that we want them to say something the program won’t get very far.

Like most ABA programs, echoics programs use shaping and reinforcement to gradually change the learner’s behaviour. You always start at the learner’s current level. The first step of an echoics program might be having them make an approximation that sounds similar to the target. For example, If the target is ‘Mommy’ it would be okay if the first response the learner emitted was ‘Ma’. Once the learner is consistently saying ‘Ma’ we would change our expectation to something more complex.

3. Why Teach Echoics?

Vocal imitation is a precursor skill for many other verbal operants. The learner will repeat the words they hear and assign meaning to them. Being able to imitate is a fundamental skill that all learners need to more easily learn new behaviours. When the learner’s able to imitate our language we’re opening doors for the other verbal operants to be taught.

4. What are transfer trials?

As previously mentioned, echoics are a foundational skill that is required before more complex skills can be introduced. Once a learner has mastered vocal imitation, one way to move on is to use transfer trials. A transfer trial bridges the mastered skill of vocal imitation with the new skill (manding, tacting etc). Simply put, it usually goes like this:

  1. The learner shows interest in an item or action.
  2. We use an echoic procedure to name the item BUT we do not reinforce the echo.
  3. The instructor uses a short phrase or question (“what did you say?” “Huh?” “What do you want?”) to prompt the learner to use the vocal response to request or label (to transfer the response!).
  4. When the learner repeats the vocal response then the instructor can reinforce!

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