Professor Danielle Matthews

School of Psychology

Professor of Psychology

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+44 114 222 6548

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Professor Danielle Matthews
School of Psychology
Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences (ICOSS)
219 Portobello
S1 4DP

I research how children learn to talk, in particular how infants and young children learn from experience to use words and grammar in a  communicatively effective way.

Video for parents: how do babies learn to communicate?

Babies communicate long before they say their first words. This video highlights some of the major steps on the path to language.

National Deaf Children's Society video series: Supporting communicative development for babies with any level of hearing loss

With the help of a large group of families, we made these videos to help parents to support communicative development from birth to two years. Find out more on the NDCS website. 

See the rest of the videos about Supporting Communication with Deaf Babies and Toddlers

We have also been supporting the development of the wonderful new resources at BBC Education's Tiny Happy People site. Check them out here!

If you would like to take part in studies with your child, please see the Sheffield Cognitive Development Research Group page and volunteer.

Research interests

Pragmatic development

Examples of pragmatic abilities that I have been interested in include children’s ability to:

  • point and vocalise to direct another person’s attention
  • repair failed communicative exchanges
  • adapt referring expressions to their interlocutor’s perceptual state and the prior discourse
  • produce speech that adheres to Greenfield’s Principle of Informativity
  • manage given and new information in conversation
  • produce narratives (talk about events removed in space and time)
  • form referential pacts
  • resolve anaphoric pronouns
  • learn the function of plurifunctional words like ´the´ and `a´ (that are so hard for non native speakers of English to master)
  • seek out contextual information to explain a speaker’s unexpected use of a given expression
  • make global and local inferences when understanding a story book
  • hold a conversation (work with Kirsten Abbot-Smith)

My current research is concerned with the learning mechanisms that allow the development of a broad set of pragmatic abilities. We are interested in how conversational experience (that can differ as a function of, e.g.,  deafness) explains pragmatic development, and what the consequences are for later outcomes and social wellbeing.

Language development and deafness

The development of communication and language is at risk for most deaf babies and young children. We have been investigating how early interaction can support development. See our video series above!

Socio-economic circumstances and language development

Upon moving to Sheffield, I became interested in the relation between social disadvantages and language development. Although there are well established correlations, it is not well understood why this is so and there is relatively little evidence about what practical steps could be taken to promote preschool language development so all children arrive at school with the language skills that can help them to thrive. I'm interested in using properly controlled intervention studies to test causal hypotheses. We are currently working to answer questions such as:

To what extent are different measures of socio-economic circumstance correlated with measures of language learning?

How are different caregiver approaches to supporting language development associated with socio-economic circumstances?

Can we support early caregiver-child interaction and mitigate the risk of language delay associated with social disadvantage? 

Do early interventions work and are they a good idea?

How do SEC differences in different cultures around the world compare?

Word learning

With former PhD students Ed Donnellan and Michelle McGillion, I have investigated how communicative skills in early infancy, namely gaze-coordinated vocalisations and gestures, combine with caregiver responses to predict individual differences in word learning.

The learnability of grammar

Part of my PhD and later work with Colin Bannard was designed to contribute to the learnability debate in grammatical development. The aim here is to explain how the cognitive biases children bring to language acquisition interact with properties of the ambient language(s) to shape development.


Show: Featured publications All publications

Journal articles

All publications


  • (2020) . John Benjamins Publishing Company. RIS download Bibtex download

Journal articles


  • Matthews D & Tomasello M (2016) Grammar, The Curated Reference Collection in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology (pp. 38-50). RIS download Bibtex download
  • Matthews D & Krajewski G (2015) First language acquisition, Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics (pp. 389-409). RIS download Bibtex download
  • Stephens G & Matthews D (2014) Referential pacts in child language development, Language in Interaction (pp. 175-190). John Benjamins Publishing Company RIS download Bibtex download
  • Stephens G & Matthews D (2014) The communicative infant from 0-18 months: The social-cognitive foundations of pragmatic development. In Matthews D (Ed.), Pragmatic Development in First Language Acquisition John Benjamins RIS download Bibtex download
  • Matthews D (2014) Referential communication In Kempe V & Brooks P (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Language Development Sage RIS download Bibtex download
  • Matthews D & Bannard C (2011) Two- and 3-year-olds’ linguistic generalizations are prudent adaptations to the language they hear. In Arnon I & Clark EV (Ed.), Experience, Variation and Generalization: Learning a first language. (pp. 153-166). John Benjamins Publishing Company RIS download Bibtex download
  • Matthews D & Tomasello M (2009) Grammar. In Haith M & Benson J (Ed.), Language, Memory, and Cognition in Infancy and Early Childhood. (pp. 192-204). Academic Press Inc RIS download Bibtex download
  • Matthews D & Tomasello M (2008) Grammar In Haith M & Benson J (Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development. (pp. 38-50). Academic Press Inc RIS download Bibtex download
  • Matthews D & Tomasello M (2008) Grammar, Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development, Three-Volume Set (pp. V2-38-V2-50). RIS download Bibtex download


Research group

Current PhD students

Rosemary Wareham-O’Brien - How deaf infants learn to communicate during parent-infant interaction. 

Current researchers

Gideon Salter - Do video materials help parents to support infant development? Testing effects on infant communication.

Kiera Solaiman - Research Assistant   Do video materials help parents to support infant development?

Former PhD students

Michelle McGillion

Ed Donnellan

Ciara Kelly

Gemma Stephens

Emma Thornton


Funded projects

  • BBC Education, D. Matthews (PI) and  J. Pine 2021-2023. Evaluation of the Tiny Happy People programme.
  • Leverhulme Trust, K. Abbott Smith (PI), Matthews, Leekham,  (2020-23) The cognitive constraints on children’s ability to manage a conversation topic.
  • UKRI GCRF L. Shapiro (PI), Farrow, Wadende, Matthews, Mooya & Koteng  (2019-2022) A school closer to home: using mealtimes to foster language development, improve girls' nutrition and align home and school in rural Kenya and Zambia
  • British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, D. Matthews, (2018-19) Pragmatic Development: How children learn to use language in social interaction.
  • University of Sheffield Legacy, D. Matthews (2018-19) Supporting communicative development in deaf babies with any level of hearing loss.
  • ESRC, Large Grant to C. Rowland (PI) D. Matthews, J. Billington, R. Levy, T Cameron-Faulkner, A. Hesketh, C. Davies (co-PIs), (2015-2018) How to promote children's language development using family-based shared book reading.
  • British Academy, Small Research Grant to D. Matthews & C. Bannard (co-PIs), (2014-2016) What role does statistical learning play in children’s pragmatic development?
  • Nuffield Foundation Foundations for Learning Grant to D. Matthews (PI), J. Herbert & J. Pine (2011-2012) Does promoting parents’ contingent talk with their infants benefit language development?
  • British Academy, Small Research Grant: to D. Matthews (PI), J. Herbert & J. Pine (2011-2012) Does promoting parents’ engagement with their infants benefit language development?
  • British Academy UK-Latin America and the Caribbean Link Scheme to D. Matthews (PI) & A. Carmiol (2010-2012) Communicative Development: A cross-linguistic, cross-cultural comparison.
Teaching activities

Teaching: Teaching: Undergraduate: Developmental Psychology (2nd year); Pragmatic Development (3rd year); BSc Research Project.

Postgraduate: Ethics; Current Issues in Psychological Research; MSc Research Project.

Admin: Research Cluster Lead for Cognition and Neuroscience

PhD Opportunities

I am happy to receive applications for PhD study in my area of research.

We advertise PhD opportunities (Funded or Self-Funded) on

For further information, please see the department PhD Opportunities page.