• Home
  • > Selected Papers
  • > Volume 2
  • > Psychological lexicon and theory-of-mind: Training preschool children to improve their social cognition

Psychological lexicon and theory-of-mind: Training preschool children to improve their social cognition

This paper focuses on the relationship between children's psychological lexicon and their development of social cognition as assessed through theory-of-mind and emotion understanding tasks. It provides a brief overview of the topic, describes our own previous data, and reports new findings with a larger sample. Participants in our latest study were 102 children of 3, 4 and 5 years of age, randomly assigned to training or control conditions. All the children were pre- and post- tested with linguistic and cognitive measures to assess their language ability, mental-state talk comprehension, false-belief understanding and emotion comprehension. During the intervention, participants in the training condition were read stories enriched with psychological lexicon and took part in language games and conversations aimed at stimulating the use of inner-state terms. As expected, they outperformed the control group at post-test on most of the administered measures. The intervention brought about a stronger improvement in social cognition in the 3- and 4-year old participants. Educational implications are briefly discussed.

Key words: psychological lexicon, mental-state talk, theory-of-mind, emotion understanding, training study, social cognition


Adriàn, J.E., Clemente, R.A., & Villanueva, L. (2007). Mothers' use of cognitive state verbs in picture-book reading and the development of children's understanding of mind: A longitudinal study. Child Development, 78(4), 1052-1067.

Appleton, M., & Reddy V. (1996). Teaching three year-olds to pass false belief tests: A conversational approach. Social Development, 5, 275-291.

Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H.M. (1995). Children talk about the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bretherton, I., & Beeghly, M. (1982).Talking about internal states: the acquisition of an explicit theory of mind. Developmental Psychology, 18(6), 906-92

Cianchetti C., & Sannio Fancello G. (1997). TVL, Test di Valutazione del Linguaggio. Livello Prescolare. Trento: Erickson.

Dunn, J., Brown, J., & Beardsale, L. (1991). Family talk about feeling states and children's later understanding of others' emotions. Developmental Psychology, 27, 448-455.

Dunn, J., Brown, J., Slomkowsky, C., Tesla, C., & Youngblade, L. (1991). Young children's understanding of other people's feelings and beliefs: individual differences and their antecedents. Child Development, 62, 1352-1366.

Garner, J.L., Jones, D.C., Gaddy, G., & Rennie, K.M. (1997). Low-income mothers' conversations about emotions and their children's emotional competence. Social Development, 6, 37-52.

Grazzani-Gavazzi, I., Ornaghi, V. (2011). Emotional state talk and emotion understanding: A training study with preschool children. Journal of Child Language, 38, 1124-1139.

Grazzani-Gavazzi, I., Ornaghi, V., & Piralli, F. (2011). Teoria della mente e comprensione del lessico psicologico nei bambini: dati preliminari di validazione del Test di Lessico Emotivo (TLE). Psicologia Clinica dello Sviluppo, XV(1), 257-266. [Theory of mind and children's comprehension of the emotional-state lexicon: preliminary validation data of the Emotional Lexicon Test (ELT)]

Guajardo, N.R., & Watson, A. (2002). Narrative discourse and theory of mind development. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 163, 305-325.

Harris, P. (2008). Children's understanding of emotion. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Barrett (eds.), Handbook of emotions. Third edition (pp. 320-331). London: The Guilford Press.

Harris, P.L., de Rosnay, M.,  & Pons, F. (2005). Language and children's understanding of mental states. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(2), 69-73.

Hughes, C. (2011) (Ed.). Social understanding and social lives. From toddlerhood through to the transition to school. London: Psychology Press.

Hughes, C., & Dunn, J. (1998). Understanding mind and emotion: Longitudinal associations with mental-state talk between young friends. Developmental Psychology, 34, 1026-1037.

Iannello P., & Antonietti A. (Eds.) (2006). Rappresentazioni della mente. Milano: Pubblicazioni ISU.

Laible, D. (2004). Mother-child discourse surrounding a child's past behavior at 30-months: Links to emotional understanding and early conscience development at 36-months. Merrill Palmer Quarterly, 50, 159-180.

Lohman, H., & Tomasello, M. (2003). The role of language in the development of false belief understanding: A training study. Child Development, 74, 1130-1144.

Milligan, K., Astington, J.W., & Dack L.A. (2007). Language and theory of mind: Meta-analysis of the relation between language ability and false-belief understanding. Child Development, 78(2), 622-646.

Nelson, K. (2005). Language pathways into the community of minds. In J.W. Astington, J.A. Baird (eds.), Why language matters for theory of mind (pp. 26-49). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ornaghi, V., Brockmeier J., & Grazzani Gavazzi, I. (2011). The role of language games in children's understanding of mental states: A training study. Journal of Cognition and Development, 12(2), 239-259.

Ornaghi, V., & Grazzani Gavazzi, I. (2009). La comprensione della mente nei bambini. Un laboratorio linguistico con storie per la scuola dell'infanzia [Children's understanding of the mind: A linguistic laboratory with stories for preschool children]. Trento: Erickson.

Ornaghi, V., & Grazzani, I. (2013). The relationship between emotional-state language and emotion understanding: A study with school-age children. Cognition and Emotion, 27(2), 356-366.

Pelletier J., & Astington J.W. (1998). Metacognitive Vocabulary Test. Institute for Child Studies, University of Toronto, Unpublished.

Peskin J., & Astington J.W. (2004). The effects of adding metacognitive language to story texts. Cognitive Development, 19, 253-273.

Pons F., & Harris P.L. (2000). TEC. Test of Emotion Comprehension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ruffman, T., Slade, L., & Crowe, E. (2002). The relation between Children's and mothers' mental state language and theory-of-mind understanding. Child Development, 73(3), 734-751.

Stein N.L., & Glenn C.G. (1979). An analysis of story comprehension in elementary school children. In R. Freedle (Ed.), New directions in discourse processing. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Tenenbaum, H.R., Alfieri, L., Brooks, P.J., & Dunne, G. (2008). The effects of explanatory conversations on children's emotion understanding. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 26, 249-263.

Veneziano, E., Hudelot, C., Albert, L., & Veyrier, C. (2008). Conversation as a way to improve 5 to 10-year old children's stories. Paper presented to the XI International Congress For The Study of Child language (IASCL), Edinburgh, July - 1 August.

Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in children's understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 103-128.

Ziv, M., Smadja, M.-L., Aram, D. (2013). Mother's mental-state discourse with preschoolers during storybook reading and wordless storybook telling. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 177-186.


Download full text of the article as PDF