Verbal fluency is a term used to describe the rate at which someone can produce words. Tests for this type of fluency are used in certain types of neurological assessments to collect information about the patient, and they are sometimes used in psychological profiles and exams as well. It is important to be aware that there is no pass/fail mark for such tests, and that high or low verbal fluency is not necessarily correlated with intelligence.
In a verbal fluency test, someone is given a prompt and a short period of time in which to respond. For example, a patient might be asked to generate a list of animals or a list of words starting with “P” in 60 seconds. The test administrator notes down how many words are generated, and may also note which words come up. Once the time period is over, the patient does not need to generate any new words. Several studies have shown that in most patients, the number of words produced is higher at the beginning than at the end of the time period of the test.
There are a number of things which can cause verbal fluency to decline. Some individuals with developmental disabilities have lower fluency, and it also declines when people have neurological problems. Traumatic brain injuries, cancers, degenerative neurological diseases, and simple aging can all cause declines in verbal fluency. Since neurologists know which areas of the brain are involved in the expression of words, declines in fluency or a low baseline rate can suggest that there may be a problem in one of these areas.
People can be extremely intelligent and not very verbally fluent, and vice versa. Thus, these types of tests are not good measures of intelligence, although they can be predictive of communication skills and the ability to respond quickly when engaging in verbal interactions. People with high verbal fluency may also be able to write quickly, if they are literate. These tests also do not test the speed and facility of verbal processing.
Some psychological profiles may use such tests, and these exams have been specifically used in studies to learn more about how the brain works. Obviously, as children develop, their verbal fluency tends to increase, because they are acquiring more words and learning more about concepts. Studying language development in children can provide interesting insight into the ways in which the brain develops, and what happens when connections in the brain are not made, or when development goes wrong for some reason. These tests can also be used to assess recovery or the progress of a neurological condition.