What is Verbal Fluency?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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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 ā€œPā€ 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.


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Post 6

I think I would panic if given a verbal fluency test. I do not do well under pressure, and the test would likely not be an accurate reflection of my abilities.

If someone gives me a time limit on something, I get flustered. I spend too much energy stressing about running out of time to devote my full attention to the task given to me. I would likely fail a verbal fluency test, even if nothing were wrong with me.

However, if I were given the same test in written form, I might excel at it. I am much better at expressing my thoughts on paper than out loud, even when a time limit is involved, though I'm sure I would do even better if the time limit were removed.

Post 5

@alisha-- That's a good question. I'm not sure of the answer but I know that when we experience strong emotions like fear or anxiety, we can develop communication problems.

Some people lose their memory after a psychological or physical trauma and some become tongue-tied as you said. I think that during traumatic events, we experience a lot of emotions and this alters the way our brain works, even if it's for a short while. So we might have trouble finding the right words or we might just not be able to talk at all.As far as I know though, unless the problem is due to injury to the brain, these can be treated with therapy and certain

verbal fluency games.

Verbal fluency tests play a big part in this process for sure. After I had a car accident two years ago, I was given a verbal fluency test immediately to make sure I didn't suffer any injuries to the brain.

Post 4

My dad has Alzheimer's and verbal fluency testing is one of the Alzheimer's tests his doctor uses to asses the development of his condition.

The verbal fluency test he is given is a little different than what the article described. He isn't required to list words but are given words to put them in a logical order. He is also given a limited time period.

The first verbal fluency test doesn't really mean much in my opinion because you have nothing to compare it to. Everyone is different in terms of verbal ability and without knowing how their verbal communication was before, you can't really tell if they're worse off or not.

But since my dad has

these verbal fluency tests done on a regular basis, it is possible to assess how he is doing. Over the past five years for example, his doctor has noticed some decrease in his verbal fluency.

So it's not true that verbal fluency tests are unreliable. They are, but the kind of verbal fluency test, how it is used and how it is assessed is very important.

Post 3

I have a question about verbal fluency. I've heard several times about people who become tongue-tied for a while after experiencing a trauma.

I remember there was a young girl in the news a couple of years ago who became tongue-tied after a hurricane. She lost her house and several family members in the hurricane and couldn't speak from the trauma.

Why does this happen? Why does our verbal fluency get affected in these kinds of situations?

Post 2

I would be very interested to see what the standards for passing and failing are in this test. This is something that interests me in general about the study of the mind. Most of it is based on empirical judgements, yet healthy minds work across a range of capacities. Perfectly healthy people are often diagnosed as somehow dysfunctional because they fall into certain arbitrary preconceived metrics.

This is a problem in all areas of psychology. How do you define a healthy mind? Isn't everyone a little dysfunctional, and isn't this necessary? This article is good to mention that these tests are not especially reliable, particularly when studied discreetly.

Post 1

I actually have a book of lots of different verbal fluency tests that have been used in various clinical situations around the world. I love words but only have a passing interest in the brain psychology behind them. I use the book mostly as a party game.

After people have had a drink or two it becomes more challenging than you would expect. And the tests are all over the map. Some of them are just weird. People seem to get a kick out of them. I found the book at a yard sale and it was the best 50 cents I ever spent.

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