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The concept "ask"


Hopefully, children will eventually learn to ask many kinds of questions, e.g., “what”, “how”, “when”, “where’ questions, etc. (Detailed considerations for what goes into teaching "WH" questions can be found in recent article published in Association for Science in Autism Treatment; link to the article is found on homepage.)

But to ask questions (e.g. "Where are you going?", "Did you make this cake?") is not to have the concept “ask”. Rather, it is to do something with words; to have learned a linguistic practice form, "asking". On the other hand, for someone to say, "You'd better not ask me for a cupcake again, or you'll go to your room" is to threaten someone; a different practice form in which the speaker appropriately uses the word "ask"while threatening.

Cases in which the word "ask" is used properly, indicates mastery of the use of the word “ask”, or that the speaker has the concept 'ask'. To have the concept 'ask' is to do nothing. A concept is not in the mind/brain which, as a result of some mental process is then magically translated into language. The concept is expressed by a word (symbol) whose meaning is determined by convention...which under such agreement is used to express a concept. To say that someone has the concept 'ask' is manifest in what they do such that they are able to use the word correctly, to explain or recognize a correct explanation of what it means and to respond correctly to its use. We can also say, a child 'understands' what the term "ask" means because the child uses and responds to the term appropriately.

To teach so that children eventually acquire the concept "ask", requires different teaching arrangements than those required to teach children to ask questions. If I want to teach a child to ask a "who" question or to request a piece of candy does not require understanding of the word "ask". But, eventually, children need to learn to use the word "ask" (to learn its meaning) so that they might say, "I asked Daddy", or to say,"Go ask Mommy", or "Don't ask me again", and also be able to respond to requests to "ask". Being able to do both are bound up and requires extended and massive amounts of practice in the intricacies involved. For example, if I tell a child to “Ask Mommy when she is leaving”…the child needs to formulate the question , “Mommy, when are you leaving?” or if I tell a child to, “Ask Daddy where I should meet him?”… becomes a question formulated this way, “Daddy, where should Alan meet you?”.


But of course, once the question is asked and information is obtained, we expect a report. Reporting back comes with its own set of enormous complexities. So once the child has the information…the report will require yet more grammatical acrobatics. Take, for example, the last question above (“Where should Alan meet you?”). The report will sound something like this “Daddy said you should meet him in the kitchen.”


These 'games' in language are complicated and draw on many other abilities. Unpacking what it takes, what is involved, how to arrange things in order to see that children are eventually able to participate in such games is the stuff of language based intervention. Knowing that such things will be required of language users, planning for 'what is coming', asks of interventionists to backward engineer in order prepare, to be steps ahead in how they conceptualize their efforts and lay out a course of action; so to eventually synthesize what is learned while inching toward progressive mastery of a language technique.

In other words, teaching children such abilities needs to be taken slowly, systematically, meticulously and discretely...making sure that constituent abilities (rudimentary pronouns, rudimentary understanding of "wh" terms and other interrogatives, say vs. do, etc.) are ready for integration/uploading into different sets of linguistic activities. And, I'll repeat, when working on such highly advanced aspects of language instruction...discrete arrangements are required! This may not be not de rigueur, but c'est la vie…sometimes, the realities of teaching/learning don’t fit neatly into popular conceptual or intervention systems AND may even alert some practitioners that their assumptions about teaching a language may need to be revised …one can only hope!

These kinds of considerations fall outside the purview of AVB... outside the conceptual machinations of Applied Verbal Behavior.  Whether something is a 'mand', a 'tact', an 'intraverbal', whether it's is determined that there is joint control, if some utterance is a defective or magical mand is of no relevance when we consider what it takes to be able to do these kinds of things, as language users...not as verbal operant emitters.

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