Maximizing Stimulus Control: Best Practice for Teaching Receptive Language

Receptive language in ABA therapy, also known as listener responding, is the ability of an individual to respond to the verbal behavior and language of others. It is defined by the American Psychological Association as acting “based on an auditory stimulus.”  Receptive language is an important foundation block of early intensive behavior intervention (EIBI), a treatment based on ABA therapy. 

Receptive language can also be described as “responding appropriately to another person’s spoken language.” The keyword in this definition is “appropriately.”

The goal of EIBI and ABA therapy is to help children with autism address problem behaviors and develop new skills that help them communicate, socialize, behave, and interact within the world. The development of stimulus control and receptive language skills give these children the tools they need to respond appropriately to another person during verbal communication, instruction, engagement, etc. 

This article explores best practices for teaching receptive language to clients, if you’d like to learn more about receptive language theory check out our article. Spoiler alert: the DataFinch Team also wrote an in-depth white paper that you can download at the end of this blog. 

Best Practice Recommendations for Teaching Receptive Language

Best practice guidelines are meant to function as a map of how to teach receptive language in an optimal way. It is important to note that this level of teaching is most important and most effective with early learners who are at the beginning of their discrimination training. This is because there is less history of faulty stimulus control preventing progress along their path. With early learners, there is less to unteach and providers are able to maximize stimulus control with a strong foundation. The best practice recommendations for teaching receptive language are as follows. 

1)     Require an Observing Response

An observing response is when a learner emits a response that involves sensory contact with the stimuli. A differential observing response is similar, but instead, the child’s response varies depending on the stimuli.  Both are used to increase the likelihood that a child will pay attention to the relevant characteristics and features of the discriminative stimulus and prevent faulty stimulus control from taking place.

This response is shown by a child before or during a trial, engages their senses, and increases attentiveness. 

An example of an observing response would be an instructor requiring the client to look at them before presenting the stimulus. This engages their visual sense so that they are more attentive when the stimuli are being presented. 

An example of a differential observing response would be when a provider presents an array to the client and asks them to choose the picture of a car. The child would then repeat the word “car” which is specific to that trial. This is different because the child is specifically saying “car,” which is specific to this exercise, where looking at the provider is not specific to any exercise. 

It is important to note that providers should only reinforce observing responses that occur after the antecedent stimuli are presented. 

2)     Minimize Unintentional Instructor Cues

The next important thing that is required for an optimal learning environment is to minimize unintentional cues. Unintentional cues, also known as unintentional prompts, can disrupt a child’s learning. It is natural for providers to want to see their client’s progress. When we let that want creep above constructing an optimal learning environment, the client’s progress suffers and faulty stimulus control will come into the picture. 

An example of this would be unintentionally arranging stimuli in a specific order so that the correct one is always in the same spot. The child would pick up on the fact that the right answer is almost always on the left side of the array and would start to pick the stimulus on the left side no matter what trial they are in. The provider might not have done this intentionally, but it still impacted the child’s learning. The child might be getting the right answers, but they do not actually understand what it is you are asking of them. 

Another example of an unintentional instructor cue would be if the provider is always looking at the correct answer when they present the array to the client. In this situation, the client will look to see where your eyes are pointing, helping them guess more effectively what it is you are wanting them to do. They are not able to use their receptive language skills to understand what is being asked of them, so they will look to their provider for hints.

Other examples of unintentional provider clues include: 

  1. Minor body mannerisms during instruction 
  2. Placing hand near the incorrect ones to block
  3. Tone or pitch


It is vital that providers avoid unintentional cues so that their client does not become dependent on those cues and is able to maximize stimulus control. Avoiding these kinds of cues can be difficult, especially when you want to see your client succeed. 

Ways that providers can avoid unintentional cues like arranging the array in a specific way every time is to utilize a digital tool that can randomize discrimination trials effectively. Providers could also prepare materials outside of the view of the child. Ultimately, minimizing cues will maximize stimulus control and progress your client more effectively. 

3)     Arrange the Antecedent Stimuli and Required Behaviors

The next step in creating an optimal teaching environment and maximizing stimulus control is to arrange the antecedent stimuli and required behaviors. This section has 5 steps. 

Plan the Required Behaviors

The goal of discrimination training is to establish positive stimulus control. In receptive language discrimination training, providers need to put thought into the behaviors they hope to impact through training. 

Ultimately, the goals that they are trying to reach throughout their training will decide what is included in it. At any given time during the training, targets should always be distinctly different from one another. For example, the targets lion, pig, and turtle are all very different in shape, color, and features. A bad example would be a lion, a cat, and a cheetah, as those are all very similar and would be harder for the learner to discriminate between. 

At the beginning of training, targets should all be very distinct from one another. As the client progresses, then the difficulty level of their targets may as well. 

Introduce and Teach the Targets Simultaneously

During a receptive language program, providers must introduce and teach targets at the same time without the implementation of mass trials. There should be a minimum of three targets at the onset of training and providers should introduce them and exit them all together, at the same time. 

There used to exist a school of thought that mass trials would be an effective way to teach children new skills and information. Mass trials are the process of doing the same trial, repeatedly to help a client memorize information. This is not an effective way to maximize stimulus control. The reality is that mass trials distract from the development of receptive language skills. Rather than genuinely understand what is being asked of them no matter what the prompt, they only look for those same characteristics in any prompt they are given. 

Mass trials make it extremely difficult to move on to new trials and introduce new information to clients. Avoiding mass trials prevents faulty stimulus control. 

The reason that a minimum of three targets should be included in each trial is so that the child does not automatically default to the second should they get an answer wrong. Three targets ensure that the child will encounter meaningful discrimination in their training. 

Select the Appropriate Auditory Instruction

Moving on, the auditory instructions emitted during receptive language programs must only include pertinent information (Green, 2001). Doing the opposite of this increases the risk that faulty stimulus control will take precedent over the client’s responses. 

Providers should avoid using similar language in any prompt they give their clients. A bad example of this might look like a provider saying “point to the car,” “point to the lion,” or “point to…” etc. If each prompt that is given to the client includes “point to,” then the prompts are too similar to maximize stimulus control. 

A more effective way to deliver a prompt would to simply say “car” or “lion.”

Again, the more advanced a child is in their receptive language training, the more complicated their prompts can become. The earlier the learner, the more simple a prompt should be to establish successful stimulus control. 

Counterbalance Antecedent Stimuli

As mentioned early, unintentional provider cues are harmful to the development of effective stimulus control in a receptive language program. To avoid this, counterbalancing antecedent stimuli comes into play. 

This is the process of rotating targets across trials in a balanced way to prevent unintentional cues. For receptive language programs, the provider would arrange the trials in a different way every time they present them. 

An effective way to know you are always counterbalancing the stimuli is to utilize software that does it for you. The use of software minimizes human error and prevents the risk of faulty stimulus control through automatic prompt generation. 

Select the Features of the Stimuli and Behaviors Carefully

When presenting stimuli, providers need to make sure they paying close attention to features and characteristics of the correct stimulus versus the incorrect stimuli. 

For example, if a provider is trying to teach a child to select targets based on roundness, the correct stimulus needs to be round and the incorrect should lack any sort of round features whatsoever. 

Another example might involve an instructor trying to teach the child to discriminate between bathroom products. Shampoo, conditioner, and lotion are all similar in shape and bottles so they would not build a successful trial. Instead, the provider could choose shampoo, toilet paper, and a toothbrush which are all distinctly different from one another. 

4 ) Use Effective Prompting and Differential Reinforcement Procedures

Response prompts are ultimately the behavior on behalf of the instructor that increases the likelihood that the correct behavior will occur. These are things that the instructor does that ultimately distract from stimulus control. For example, if a teacher stretches their arm when giving a prompt, the client will internalize that movement as the conditional stimulus and it will impact their response. 

Providers need to avoid these extra movements or responsive prompts to not distract from the conditional stimulus that is trying to be delivered to the client. Prompts that are intended to put in the learning exercise are either verbal, gestural, or physical. 

An optimal teaching environment functions under a decreasing assistance fading procedure. This means that across the trials, the provider starts off assisting the child as much as possible and decreases that assistance over time. This is also known as errorless assistance as it decreases the number of errors a child encounters in their learning as they progress through their trials.

Providers should also utilize preference assessment to identify effective reinforcers. Differential reinforcement is the process of reinforcing specific a specific response. Differential reinforcement enables independent and correct responses through receptive language programs. Providers should vary the strength of their reinforcers depending on the situation and should keep their strongest reinforcers for independent correct responses. 

5) Troubleshoot Stimulus Control Problems

Even though providers do their best to prevent faulty stimulus control from taking place, it can still happen. For this reason, it is vital that providers are always keeping their eye out for issues. 

An example of how a provider might identify the presence of faulty stimulus control is if the child is answering before the prompt has been given, they are looking for unintentional cues, or they are not following instructions appropriately. 

Once faulty stimulus control is identified, providers can make a plan to undo it and structure their receptive language program around the new needs of the client. Before they can build a plan to fix it, they need to figure out where it came from so that faulty stimulus control does not continue. 

Maximizing stimulus control in a receptive language program is possible when providers put in the work to create an optimal teaching environment. The important things to remember are that the sooner these strategies are implemented into a child’s learning, the better stimulus control they will attain, and even in the best receptive language programs, faulty stimulus control can still occur.

By following these best practices for receptive language teaching, providers can easily maximize stimulus control and help their clients succeed within their receptive language program.

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  1. Applied Behavior Analysis EDU. (2019). What is Meant by Differential Reinforcement in the Context of Applied Behavior Analysis?

  2. Green, G. (n.d.). Behavior analytic instruction for learners with autism: Advances in stimulus control technology. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disorders, 16(7), 72-85.

  3. Grow, L., & LeBlanc, L. (2013). Teaching Receptive Language Skills. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 6(1), 56-75.

  4. Pelios, L. V., & Sucharzewski, A. (2004). Teaching Receptive Language to Children with Autism: A Selective Overview. ABA PsychNet.
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This post is for informational purposes only and is not meant to be used in lieu of practitioners’ own due diligence, state and federal regulations, and funders’ policies. 

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