VERBAL LEARNING- The Instructional Procedure

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India


I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.

-Audre Lorde


Verbal learning is the process of acquiring, retaining and recalling of verbal material. At its most elementary level, it can be defined as a process of building associations between a stimulus and a response, with both of them being verbal. At a broader level, verbal learning includes the processes of organizing the stimulus material by the learner and the related changes in the learner’s behavior.

At its most basic level, verbal learning may be considered the process of forming verbal associations. Gagne (1970) uses this example: A child is presented with a three-dimensional object and told it is a tetrahedron. If the appropriate conditions are present, when the child sees this object the next time he will be able to say that it is a tetrahedron. At the most basic level, then, verbal learning is naming—attaching a name to an object. Later we shall refer to naming as labeling behavior. According to Gagne, verbal learning (at this level) is like skill learning in that it involves a chain of at least two links. The first link is the presentation of the object) the stimulus) and the observing of the object (the response). In the second link, the observing response results in certain internal stimuli with give rise to the verbal response—the utterance “tetrahedron.” Gage (p.135) diagrams the simple act of naming:

Ss -à R                       ~                  s -à R

Object                Observing              tetrahedron    “tetrahedron”

The small s’s refer to internal stimuli.

The diagram indicated how verbal learning is related to basic S-R learning. The observing response which enables the child to distinguish one four-sided object from other four-sided objects is acquired through operant conditioning. The second link, which connects the internal stimuli to the actual utterance of the word, is also acquired through operant conditioning. As you will see that considerably more complex verbal associations are possible, involving longer chains and verbal hierarchies.  Verbal learning resembles skill learning in that both involve the chaining of responses. In both chains each link is an individual stimulus-response association and acts as a stimulus for the next link. The major distinction between skill and verbal chains is the type of response. Skill chains involve motor responses; verbal chains involve syllable and word responses.

In describing the nature of verbal learning we saw that it both resembles skill learning because it involves chain of stimulus-response associations, and is distinct from skill learning because it involves verbal rather than motor responses

Suggested Instructional Procedure

Verbal Linguistically talented people flourish in school activities such as reading and writing. They express themselves well and are usually good listeners with a well-developed memory for material they’ve read and recall of spoken information. Language fascinates people with verbal linguistic learning styles, and they enjoy learning new words and exploring ways to creatively use language, as in poetry. They may enjoy learning new languages, memorizing tongue twisters, playing word games, and reading reference materials for fun.

Jhon P.De Cecco and William Crawford describe the verbal learning as a series of seven steps which conform to the four components of the basic teaching model. Step 1 and 2 pertain to instructional objectives. Step 1 requires a statement of the objective and step 2, a type of task analysis. Step 3 provides the student with the appropriate entering behavior. Step 4 through 6 is specific instructional procedures for concept teaching and step 7 deals with performance assessment.

These steps require the teacher to supply the students with statements of instructional objectives, to examine learning tasks for their meaningfulness, to assess entering behavior for meaningful and mediating responses, to provide appropriate practice conditions, to provide knowledge of correct results, to provide conditions which reduce interference, and use suitable methods  of measurement.

Step One


This step derives from the research on incidental versus intentional learning. The experiment of Postman and Senders showed that incidental learners obtained low test scores than intentional learners. In taking this step you should inform the students prior to the time they begin to study, what aspects of their performance will be assessed. In effect, you should state for them the instructional objectives.

In taking step one two common instructional practices should be avoided. First, the practice of launching the instructional ship in the uncharted waters with no destination specified can only diffuse the student’s attention and cause them to attend to irrelevant.  Although we know that incidental learning occurs without specific and sometimes competing aspects of the instructional materials. Although we know that incidental learning occurs without specific direction, we also know that particular learning  occurs more frequently and more easily when instructions on what to learn are explicit. Second, the practice of teaching one set of materials and testing on quite a different and unrelated set should be avoided.

Step Two


Meaningfulness is word frequency or familiarity. The more frequently a word occurs in the language, the greater its familiarity and therefore, its meaningfulness. This definition suggests that some of the verbal material you use in your teaching will be more meaningful than others. Such lists are often used in the preparation of reading materials for the elementary grades. They can also be appropriately used in the preparation of verbal instructional material, both written and oral, at all educational levels.

One way of performing this step is to make a list of words which occur in the materials you will use and for which you do not plan to provide explicit instruction. These are words you are assuming to be in the student’s entering behavior. A check of your list with a published word frequency count will indicate the like hood of the student’s being familiar with the word. In this way you may discover that the student’s entering behavior is below the level that you expected and that you will have to select more familiar words or provide instruction which will raise the level of entering verbal behavior.

Step Three


In assessing the availability of meaningful responses, the teacher is attempting to make relatively meaningless materials meaningful. Or, if you prefer less technical language, the teacher is making unfamiliar materials familiar. The definition seems obvious—no one would expect otherwise of any competent teacher. Considerably less obvious are the procedures the teacher must use to perform this function. The performance requires two things: to assess the student’s entering behavior to discover not only which responses are available but also their relative availability and to present the new (presently meaningless) materials in terms of meaningful responses now available to the student. The assessment of entering behavior involves testing the student’s knowledge of material which is related to the new material you are about to introduce but for which you will not provide instruction. If the results of your testing indicate (and in most classrooms this would not be surprising) that the student lacks the prerequisite entering behavior, then you must teach the prerequisites first. Once the student has acquired the necessary entering behavior you can proceed to the next step; that is, you can present the new materials in terms of meaningful responses—those which are available and relatively strong. The actual instruction you provide must bridge the old and the new meanings. Totally meaningless materials (if they exist) require considerable more time to learn. When the teacher does introduce highly novel materials (as in mathematics and some uncommon foreign languages),  he should provide the additional time required for familiarization.

We can now consider the assessment of entering behavior for the availability of verbal mediators (the rest of step 3). This step consists of the following procedures:

1 ) determining which verbal and pictorial mediators may be useful for the instructional task;

2 ) assessing entering behavior to find out which of these (and others) may be available; and

3 ) supplying mediators which may be useful in the leaning of the task .

Step Four


In the performance of this step the teacher must

1)    Provide opportunities for the student to make the necessary responses,

2)     schedule practice on a massed or a distributed basis,

3)    determine the degree of mastery the student must attain,

4)     provide either part or whole practice.

First you can provide the student with the opportunity for making the responses he is expected to learn in several ways; recitation, discussion and programmed instruction.

The recitation method is characterized by assignment, study and report. Recitation allows the individual student to practice overt responses.

It is found that there is greater retention of material for students of high academic ability with discussion procedures and greater retention for students of low ability with the lecture method. There is little opportunity to monitor individual students responses. The discussion method has the further disadvantage of providing only limited opportunity for students to make overt responses; While one student talks, all , all the rest must listen. Unless the teacher provides oral instruction on a one-to-one basis, programmed instruction is one of the few instructional procedures which provides each student in a group of students with the opportunity to respond and to obtain knowledge of results for each response.

Second, you must decide how to schedule the students’ practice. Should you provide massed or distributed practice? The best practice schedule makes the most efficient use of the students’ and the teacher’s time and yields the greatest amount of learning and the longest periods of retention. The criteria are clear, but the procedures for meeting them are not. Certainly, when there is very little time for the learning of new material, massed practice, you recall, the teacher must allow for learning (practice) time and intervals between practices. When you are interested in having your students retain fairly large amounts of material for long periods of time, you should provide distributed practice. If you use a schedule of distributed practice, you must also decide what you will have the students do during the practice intervals.  If the intervals are to be effective, the students cannot be occupied with learning related material, which only interferes with the retention of the practice material . The intervals can, of course, be occupied with the learning of relatively unrelated material or with recreational activities. One could even develop a rather valid argument for periodic recreational activities in the classroom to facilitate student learning.

If you plan your instruction in sufficient detail and with scrupulous respect for time the practice of old material possibly can be combined with the introduction of new material. The student has many opportunities to practice his reading skill in pursuing material of his own choice as well as in reading class assignments. Practice however, cannot be left to chance. Unless you arrange for practice in spelling, reading, writing, speaking, and playing with music instrument, there will often be no practice. Surveying the crowded school curriculum, one is often tempted to recommend a reform in which we teach a few things well, with practice rather than myriad things poorly without practice.

Third, you must decide which instructional should be overlearned, and you must allow the students to practice these tasks beyond mastery. The tasks scheduled for overlearning of a wide array of future tasks. Certain linguistic and mathematical skills and concepts must often be  overlearned so that they can be  automatically applied in more advanced learning.. Overlearning can sometimes be provided by a spiral treatment of the particular learning task. That is, you can return again and again to the same task and require the student to practice it in continuously changing contexts.

Fourth, you must decide whether to require part or whole practice. You should base this decision on the structure of the learning material. Students can learn material which logically divided into parts and recombines into wholes by part practice. Other materials may require whole practice. The standard, again, is learning the most in the least amount of time.

Step Five


In this step prompting  or confirmation of correct response is provided. In prompting, you provide the correct answers before the student responds. In confirming, you provide the correct answers after the student responds. With these and any other procedures, however, the student must have some means of discovering the correct answers and the opportunity to compare his own answers with them.

Step Six


In this step you must reduce the influence of factors which cause interference and forgetting. For it the following points be taken into consideration:

1)    Do task analysis which reduces the major task to a series of component tasks. Such an analysis makes explicit for the teacher the steps the student must take and the order in which he must take them to master the task.

2)    After this task analysis the teacher should present the sub-tasks in such a way as to avoid interference. In the case of pro-active inhibition, interference results when the learning of an earlier subtask interferes with retention of a subtask learned later. The situation is just vice versa in case of retroactive inhibition.

3)    The teacher must find those points in the material he presents which are frequently sources of interference or confusion. Our present knowledge of the effects of stimulus-and-response similarity should assist the teacher in identifying sequences likely to interfere with the retention of materials.

4)    We know that highly dissimilar stimuli and responses prevent forgetting. Through the use of various devices, such as color, symbols, and drawings, the teacher may introduce dissimilarity into potentially confusing materials.

5)    The major source of forgetting is proactive inhibition—what the student has previously learned in our own and other classes. With a fairly standard curriculum for all students, we could identify sources of proactive inhibition. With so much diversity in the entering behavior of our students however, we must identify sources of interference for individual students. As in case of assessing entering behavior for meaningful responses, research on proactive inhibition confirms our emphasis on the careful assessment of the entering behavior of the student as an important basis for planning instruction.

Step Seven


You recall that the method of measurement affects how much is retained. How do you decide which method to use? The basis for this decision should be the standard of accessibility specified in the statement of the instructional objective. If the objective requires, under given conditions,  that the student only recognize the correct response in a list of alternatives or reconstruct a list by unscrambling it, you should use only those methods of measurement.  If the standard of acceptability requires recall, relearning, and anticipation, then you should use these more rigorous methods. Ordinarily we reserve the use of the relearning and anticipation methods for the laboratory, but we can easily adapt them to the classroom.


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