Below is a summary of 3 frequently used types of prompts: verbal prompts, gesture prompts, and model prompts. They are described in the order that is generally considered least-to-most intrusive in terms of the help they provide to the person learning the skill.

Before diving into these prompt types, it’s worth a reminder that the goal is for a learner to perform every skill as independently as possible. Prompts should only be added when a learner is not able to complete a skill independently. They should never be added automatically.

Verbal Prompts

Generally considered the least intrusive type of prompt, verbal prompts are additional spoken directions given to a person to complete a task. Note that the word additional was used. Typically, when we want a learner to start a new task, we provide an initial verbal direction. For example, I might say “We’re going to the store. Let’s get ready to leave.” Because I don’t expect the learner to read my mind, this first statement is not considered a prompt, it’s considered a task direction.

Let’s say we’re working on the following goal: When told, “It’s time to get ready to leave,” the learner will independently walk to the door and put their shoes on.

Now let’s look at an example of a prompt. After I initially said, “It’s time to get ready to leave,” I then needed to say, “let’s go,” “come here,” or “get your shoes,” because the learner did not get up and get their shoes after the initial direction.

Challeges with Verbal Prompts

Though often considered the least intrusive type of prompt, verbal prompts can become problematic if not used carefully. There is a risk that the learner will start to wait for us to give those additional directions, which can lead to prompt dependency. Prompt dependency means that the learner will not move on to the next step of a task until we give a prompt. If we constantly provide step-by-step directions, how will that person do the skill unless we’re by their side to tell them what to do next?

Another risk of using verbal prompts is that we tend to use a LOT of them. Despite my history of trying to use prompts carefully, I learned how easy it is to overuse verbal prompts when my husband and I took our dog to dog training.

The trainer wanted us to be very aware of how many times we gave a direction to our dog. The goal was to give a command only one time. The trainer gave the example that “Let’s go. C’mon…c’mon…c’mon let’s go!” is actually 5 commands instead of one. I caught myself over-prompting our dog frequently during training.

This rings true of the way I’ve caught myself talking to my own kids as well as the children and adults I support. For these reasons, a gesture prompt can actually be less invasive than a verbal prompt when teaching a new skill.

Gesture Prompts

We may most often think of a gesture as the one-finger salute one driver gives to another after being cut off. Gesture prompts involve motioning or pointing toward an object or location that is part of the next step in a task (though not with the same finger shared with that fellow driver!)

Going back to the example above, if, after I gave the learner the direction “it’s time to get ready to leave” they continued sitting, I could provide a gesture prompt by pointing to the door or to his or her shoes as a clue to the next step.

Notice that, in this example, the only thing I do is point to the door or the shoes. I don’t also say “get your shoes” or that would be using both a gesture AND a verbal prompt.

Gestures can often be a less intrusive way to teach a skill because we are guiding the person to pay attention to the object or cues in the environment that are part of the next step (such as their shoes), rather than teaching them to focus on our verbal directions. Similarly, model prompts can help in the same way.

Model Prompts

The phrases model citizen or model student are used to indicate that others should aim to act like the citizen or student who was recognized. In the same way, a model prompt guides a learner to act in the way we are acting.

To provide a model prompt in the example of getting ready to leave, after giving the direction “it’s time to get ready to leave,” you could sit in view of the learner and start getting your own shoes on. As with gesture prompts, it’s easy to slip and accidentally use a verbal prompt at the same time.

I think it’s okay to get the learner’s attention by saying something like “I’m getting ready to leave” because we’re not saying anything specifically about walking to the door or getting shoes on, we’re just making sure the learner is watching what we’re doing.

Taking Action

Hopefully this discussion about verbal, gesture, and model prompts has sparked some ideas on different ways you can support the learners you work with. We encourage you to think about the prompts you’re currently using and make sure they are a good fit.

Remember that the goal of any prompt is to help the person learn the steps of a task so they can do it on their own without your help in the future.