Dr Danielle Matthews

Photo of DanielleAddress
The University of Sheffield
Sheffield S10 2TP, UK
Tel: (+44) 0114 22 26548
Email danielle.matthews@sheffield.ac.uk
Room: LG-10




New Website for Parents: Before Their First Words

First words website

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

My current research is concerned with explaining individual differences in a broad set of pragmatic abilities. We are particularly interested in explaining which pragmatic abilities cluster together, what cognitive skills (particularly statistical learning) and social-cognitive skills are associated with different pragmatic skills, whether/how differences in conversational experience (due to, e.g.,  differences in early language ability, parenting or loss of hearing) explain differences in pragmatic development, and what the consequences of differences are for later academic achievement and social wellbeing.

In another line of research, we have been focusing on when infants first gain intentional control over communication and when they appear to grasp its 'Gricean structure'.

Socio-Economic Status and Language Development

Since moving to Sheffield, I have become interested in the relation between SES and Language Development and its consequences for school readiness. 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 compare?

Word Learning

With Michelle McGillion, I have been investigating how communicative skills in early infancy, namely babbling and pointing, 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

Ciara Kelly - communicative development in hearing impaired infants and children

Ed Donnellan - communicative intentions in human infants and chimpanzees

Current Postdoctoral Researchers

Michelle McGillion - language development, dental health and SES

Teaching and Admin

Teaching: PSY245; PSY259; PSY6121; PSY6122; PSY6232; PSY6110; DClinPsy; IAPT Critical Appraisal.

Admin: Director of the MSc in Psychological Research


I took a combined honours undergraduate degree in French and Philosophy at the University of Leeds. While there, a French linguistics tutor gave me a book on Language Acquisition and I decided to switch fields to Psychology. After graduating, I spent a year working in Lyon, France, teaching English at Université Lyon 3 and reading about Cognitive Psychology. While there, I was lucky enough to win an ESRC scholarship for the MSc in Cognitive Science and Natural Language Engineering in the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh. I ran my first study there on the development of inflectional morphology. I moved from Edinburgh to Manchester to do a PhD in the Department of Psychology with a scholarship from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. My thesis was on the development of grammar and reference in 2 - 4-year-old children. I stayed on in Manchester as a post doc for four years working on pragmatic development and infant communication. In 2008-2009, I took a career break for maternity leave. I came to Sheffield as a Lecturer in 2009 and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2012 and to Reader in 2015.


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