How Toddlers and Preschoolers Learn to Uniquely Identify Referents for Others: A Training Study


  • This research was supported by the Max Planck Institution for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany. The authors thank Anna Roby, Lianne Heys, and Elizabeth Wills for helping with data collection; Siu-lin Rawlinson for drawing the story books; Tanya Behne, Franklin Chang, Malinda Carpenter, and Thomas Pechmann for helpful discussions; and the parents, teachers, and children who volunteered to participate for their enthusiasm.

concerning this article should be addressed to Danielle Matthews, Max Planck Child Study Centre, School of Psychological Sciences, The University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK. Electronic mail may be sent to


This training study investigates how children learn to refer to things unambiguously. Two hundred twenty-four children aged 2.6, 3.6, and 4.6 years were pre- and posttested for their ability to request stickers from a dense array. Between test sessions, children were assigned to a training condition in which they (a) asked for stickers from an adult, (b) responded to an adult’s requests for stickers, (c) observed 1 adult ask another for stickers, or (d) heard model descriptions of stickers. All conditions yielded improvements in referring strategies, with condition (a) being most effective. Four-year-olds additionally demonstrated learning effects in a transfer task. These results suggest that young children’s communication skills develop best in response to feedback about their own attempts at reference.