Dr Danielle Matthews

Photo of DanielleReader in Cognitive Development
The University of Sheffield
Sheffield S1 2TN , UK
Tel: (+44) 0114 22 26548
Email danielle.matthews@sheffield.ac.uk

New 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. 

Click here to see the rest of the videos about Supporting Communication with Deaf Babies and Toddlers

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


Edited Volume on Pragmatic Development

Front Cover of Tilar Edited Volume Matthews, D. E. (Ed.). (2014). Pragmatic Development in First Language Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pragmatic development is increasingly seen as the foundation stone of language acquisition more generally. From very early on, children demonstrate a strong desire to understand and be understood that motivates the acquisition of lexicon and grammar and enables ever more effective communication. In the 35 years since the first edited volume on the topic, a flourishing literature has reported on the broad set of skills that can be called pragmatic. This volume aims to bring that literature together in a digestible format. It provides a series of succinct review chapters on 19 key topics ranging from preverbal skills right up to irony and argumentative discourse. Each chapter equips the reader with an overview of current theories, key empirical findings and questions for new research. This valuable resource will be of interest to scholars of psychology, linguistics, speech therapy, and cognitive science.




Research Overview

I research how children learn to talk, in particular how infants and young children learn to use words and grammar to communicative effect.

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 videos series above!

Socio-Economic Status and Language Development

Upon moving to Sheffield, I became interested in the relation between SES and Language Development. Although there are well established correlations between SES and, for example, vocabulary size, the basis for this association is not well understood and there is relatively little evidence about what practical steps could be taken to promote preschool language development. I'm interested in using properly controlled intervention studies to test causal hypotheses. We are currently working to answer questions such as:

How is SES measured? How do different indices correlate with measures of language learning?

Does contingent talk vary as a function of SES and does it causally affect language development?

Do early interventions work and are they a good idea?

How does book reading promote early language development and narrative understanding?

How do SES 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 measures of the language learning environment 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.

Current PhD Students

Gemma Stephens - Pragmatic development in infancy/preschool and SES

Emma Thornton - The association between early vocabulary and later life outcomes in large cohort studies 

Current Researchers

Ciara Kelly -  Postdoctoral Researcher - Supporting deaf infants' and toddlers' communicative development

Ellen Crawford - Research Assistant    - Supporting deaf infants' and toddlers' communicative development

Teaching and Admin

Teaching: Undergraduate: Developmental Psychology; Research Methods;  Extended Essay; Research Project.

Postgraduate:  Current Issues in Psychological Research ; Systematic Literature Reviewing; MSc Research Project.

Admin: Director of the MSc in Psychological Research (with Advanced Statistics; with Data Science)

Funded Projects

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.

Selected Publications

A list of key publications can be found below.  For a full list of publications please click here

Journal articles