Receptive language skills — the ability to respond to the language of another person — is a crucial component of child development. Grow and LeBlanc provides a review of the literature pertinent to the teaching of such skills, along with recommendations for instructors, in the journal Behavior Analysis in Practice.

The authors mention that, while typically developing children readily develop receptive language skills, those with disabilities require a more structured learning environment that carefully targets different components of the overall receptive language repertoire, such as matching spoken words to objects, the ability to follow instructions, and so on. However, Grow and LeBlanc note that even a slight deviation in procedural details can produce learning difficulties and problematic behavior.

Within this context, the authors outline five “best practices” for teaching receptive language skills, which are briefly summarized below:

Require an Observing Response: An observing response allows the learner to make contact with the discriminative stimulus before or during a trial. The authors noted that such responses “are used to increase the likelihood that the learner will pay attention to the relevant features of the discriminative stimulus and avoid the development of faulty stimulus control.” They also noted that if a learner can already scan a visual array then a formal assessment of the learner’s observing repertoire is likely not needed, but the VB-MAPP Barriers Assessment can be helpful.

Minimize Inadvertent Instructor Cues: Inadvertent instructor cues can result from behavior as subtle as different inflections of particular words. For example, if an instructor tends to inflect “Stand Up” in a particular way and “Sit Down” in another way, then the learner might not be responding to the content of the words themselves.

Arrange the Antecedent Stimuli and Required Behaviors: Within the confines of the learner’s repertoire, the authors recommend selecting behavioral targets that are distinctly different from one another, especially in the beginning. The authors noted, “for example, a program to teach receptive identification of body parts might include a training set consisting of feet, knees, and head.” Doing so allows for finer discriminations to be taught later.

Prompting and Differential Reinforcement: The goal here is “to promote rapid acquisition by minimizing or eliminating persistent errors and increasing consistent use of effective reinforcers.” For example, one important decision is for the instructor to select the appropriate types of prompts suitable to the learner’s repertoire. Different classes of prompts include stimulus prompts, extra stimulus prompts, within stimulus prompts, and response prompts. For differential reinforcement, provide denser schedules during skill acquisition and save the most valuable reinforcers for independent responses.

Troubleshoot Existing Problems with Stimulus Control: Faulty stimulus control implies the teacher may think the learner is responding appropriately when his/her behavior is actually in response to a procedural confound in the program itself. The authors give examples such as responding before a prompt, responding in rapid succession, or responding due to a side bias. As a solution, the authors suggest bringing in another instructor to compare effectiveness, or arranging an array out of sight of a learner, etc…

If you teach receptive language skills, be sure to check out the full article, which is packed full of much more information than provided here.