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Getting Pronouns off the Ground: Considerations

Roughly 34% of the 50 most common words used in English are pronouns. Imagine trying to learn a language and not being able to learn to use 34% of some of the most common words in that language. Yet, with few exceptions, children on the spectrum struggle to learn to use them. This is a significant impediment toward mastery of learning a language (and doesn't even account for the many other pronouns used in English which are not a part of the 50 most common words). Thus, considerations beyond what is typically advanced for helping children acquire pronouns must be offered.


Why is it so difficult for children to learn? One likely reason is that the use of pronouns is contextually determined. Learning to use them requires vigilant tracking across shifting speakers and listeners (you, I, they, he, she, Ralph, etc.), and shifting events. It is important that children learn to track things like 'who did/said what to whom', who is in possession of what and changes in possession. It's complicated and requires a child's acute attention to their instructor, attention dexterity, precise teaching arrangements and conceptual clarity.


Using pronouns is not like learning the name of something; a car is"car", a finger is "finger", a desk is "desk". But,  in language, the same person, for example, 'Leslie' could be referred to as “him”, “you”, “yours”, “his”, “hers”, “she” or “he”. If included in a group, “they”, “their”, “theirs”, “our”, “ours”, “them”, “themselves”, etc. . Or,  if self-referred, “I”, “my”, "me“, "myself”, “mine”, etc. How are kids ever to get a handle on this? If our goal it to assist in teaching children to use and respond appropriately to pronouns, where should we begin?


Clearing up some basic confusion and nonsense:


The first thing we need to do is clear up some confusion and begin to speak clearly about what we are talking about when we talk about pronouns. First, pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. Though it is commonly said that we 'tact pronouns', saying this lacks sense. First, saying this doesn't comport with the definition of a tact. Skinner (1957) says, "A tact may be defined as a verbal operant in which the response of a given form is evoked (or at least strengthened) by a particular object or event or property of an object or event." But pronouns are not objects or events or properties of an object or event. There are no pronouns in the world. (Can you point to a pronoun?) They exist in language. In a tact relation, the thing in the world evokes the utterance... but, in the case of pronouns, there is no 'thing', so there can be no "tact"... How can a pronoun have evocative power if it is not in the world.  It makes no sense to say that ‘we tact pronouns’.  This is nonsense. But this is doesn't prevent most behavior analysts from talking this way.


But we must ask, even if it were the case, that we ‘tact’ pronouns, what does saying this add? How does this inform our efforts to teach children how to use them? You see, when we teach a language...we teach those learning a language how to use and respond to words according to the conventions for their use. When it comes to pronouns, children need to learn the complicated things we do when we use them and under which circumstances which pronouns are appropriate within a particular linguistic practice, and how to respond when they are used by others. Thus, for example, children need to learn how to use and respond to pronouns so that when they are told, “Go tell Mommy that you need her keys", they know to go to Mommy and formulate the response,  “Mommy, I want your keys”. Saying that we 'tact' pronouns is a dead end when attempting to account for pronoun use, what it takes to be able to use them and what it takes, on our part, to help children learn how to use and respond to them. 


Getting some basic things in place before considering efforts to teach children to use pronouns:

The use of Standard Echoic Training (SET) is ubiquitous in early behavioral intervention. It finds its conceptual home in Applied Verbal Behavior; A conceptual scheme informed by Skinner's Verbal Behavior in which Skinner sets 'Verbal Behavior' apart from language (Skinner, 1957, p.2). (While Skinner worked to disentangle language from verbal behavior, many contemporary behavior analysts insist that language and verbal behavior are the same thing. For example,Tina Sidener (2010) says, “B. F. Skinner wrote a book called Verbal Behavior, in which he introduced a controversial idea – that language is behavior!” But, Skinner doesn't say that.)


Concerning SET, Shane (2016) writes, “Standard echoic or vocal imitation training involves presenting a vocal model, and providing access to reinforcers if the participant imitates that model within an established amount of time. This is a relatively simple procedure that is easy to implement.”


It looks like this:

Teacher says “Ah”… Child emits “ah” and the child’s emitted response is reinforced.


Our experience has shown that employing SET is useful in establishing early verbal imitative responding. However, its use beyond that actually confounds efforts to teach a language as its use runs counter to conventions of ordinary linguistic practice. It confuses as it violates conventions within our linguistic practice and renders teaching efforts incoherent within a language scheme. Thus, SET does not clarify, ‘when to echo/imitate (and when not to) or precisely what to echo/imitate’ as would a common instruction, “say”. SET can’t provide the kinds of therapeutic accuracy needed to tackle complex language goals. Examples of the imprecision of SET as are shown below as we consider use of pronouns:

Pronouns/ giving directions


In the illustration above, the instructor wants a child to say, “Throw me the ball”, and says, “Throw me the ball” intending to prompt the child to say the same thing. In this case, one sees immediately that basic deixic relations are disregarded. “Me” always refers to the speaker. In this case, when the speaker says, “Throw me the ball”, the instructor is telling the child to throw the instructor the ball. It can’t be any other way. This is how our language works. These words have a place in a Wittgensteinian grammar and mean things. Used outside of their place in grammar is simply incoherent and it should not surprise anyone when children continue to 'reverse' pronouns inappropriately and otherwise misuse and confuse uses. 


It seems only natural that as instructors of a language, our teaching conform to the practices within that language…that if we intend for children to learn a language, our language instruction is aligned with the practices within that language. How can it been done any other way? Would you try to teach chess using the rules for checkers? To teach soccer according to the rules of baseball. Of course not. So why teach language informed by a conceptual system apart from language?

At a minimum, a child needs instruction that doesn’t confuse and which operates within the rules of the language one is trying to teach. Using SET fails in this effort. With all this said, children need to learn to follow the instruction "say". (For more on this topic and strategies so that children learn what "say" means, go to .) Without that instruction in place, forget pronouns. It's that simple.



Teaching rudimentary pronouns needs to be taken slowly and requires considerable practice (repetition) and use of a highly discrete and meticulous routine (discrete trial instruction). It requires getting rudiments in place before tackling more complex arrangements and objectives. While discrete trial instruction is not sexy or popular these days, it is a highly efficient and effective tool when used appropriately and properly (See Lund, 2001). It is the tool of choice for teaching the children rudiments for pronoun use.  Other, now popular instructional formats ( e.g.,NET, play based formats) cannot offer the precision required for most children to acquire rudimentary abilities in pronoun use (and many other difficult linguistic forms). Additionally, formal curricula now available promise advancement in abilities (both basic and complex) but forego the kinds of analysis and synthesis often required to get abilities off the ground.

Teaching pronouns requires a child's acute attention to their instructor as well as attention dexterity (they need to be able to shift attention, share attention, and have focused attention to their instructor). Selection based imitation (Schnee, 2023, Lund and Schnee, 2018)) serves as a nice platform for getting attention dexterity off the ground. (Suggestions for establishing 'attention' to persons can be found on this website, ("To look or not to look")

Example of Pronoun Exercise

Earliest pronoun exercises quickly become complex once appropriate 'reversals' (transformations) are required. For example,  beginning with a simple "My/Your program", i.e., Teacher says, "Touch my nose or touch your nose", is rather straight forward. However, once that receptive response is (immediately) followed by a question "Whose nose is this?", things get very tricky very quickly since a 'reversal' is required  (These exercises can be found in Lund and Schnee, 2018, Schnee, 2023). If that is not difficult enough, things get more tricky as captured in the exercise below. I must emphasize again, early instruction in the use of pronouns needs to be meticulous. Only the proper use of discrete trial instruction will allow for the kind of clarity required in these efforts. Professionals implementing this should have the proper training in these related areas.

Here's an example of a more complex pronoun exercise (Schnee, 2023) using discrete trial instruction. This is very difficult. It must also be noted that teaching pronouns may not be an appropriate goal for all youngsters.

Nominal Pronouns (4): Shifting speakers

(This sample exercise follows more basic 'pronoun' exercises.)



  • To teach the child to use nominative pronouns “I” and “You”, combined with proper names


Set Up


  • Three or more persons required

       Have the child hold an object (e.g. cup)  and you and an assistant each hold different objects. You and the assistant   rotate asking.



  • Step one: You and assistant rotate asking, “Who has the  “X” (e.g. cup) vs “Who has “Y” (e.g. ball), “Who has “Z” (e.g. spoon). When you ask questions regarding the assistant, the child refers to her by name.  When you are the spectator and the assistant is asking questions ,the child will refer to you by your proper name and the assistant as “you”.  Of course the child always refers to themselves as “I” and when you are asking, the child refers to “you” as “you".


  • Step two: You or assistant ask the child “What do you have” , “What do I have”, “What does (person/proper name have?)”.

       Prompt correct responses according to who is in possession of each object, i.e, I have the X or You have Y, ‘Proper       name’ (Sally) has Z . This is more difficult than step one because if requires transforming the pronoun. Make sure to change what each of you is holding so that the child will not memorize responses.


  • This exercise is not only matter of answering questions. It entails personal deixis; the right answer depends on who is asking. The primary goal is to teach the child to say “you” when the speaker asks the child what the speaker is holding, to say “I” when the speakers asks about what the child is holding and to use a proper name when the child is asked about what any other person is holding (if that person is not the speaker). This discrimination requires considerable practice.


      If the child struggles with these arrangements, segment instruction into smaller ‘switched’ sequences as described in step 3 of Assigning Pronouns to Pictures of Persons 1.

Additional pronoun exercises can be found in Schnee, 2023 (Level II)  or Schnee, 2023 (Kindle ebook) and other manuals (Lund and Schnee, 2018, Leaf and McEachin, 1998, Maurice, Green and Luce, 1996).  And remember, meticulous teaching arrangements (precise use of discrete trial instruction), acute attention to instructor, attention dexterity and conceptual clarity (we USE pronouns vs.'tacti' them) will set you on a clearer path toward teaching children how to use them. Once rudiments are in place, it is essential to begin to place children in activity in which use is required. For example, in a simple matching game, pronouns can be practiced. Pronoun use would come from questions such,"Who got a match?" > (I did, you did, Mommy got a match), "Who's turn?" > (My turn, your turn, Alan's turn) "Did I get a match?"> (No, I got a match, Yes, you got a match, No Alan got a got a match) "It is X's turn? > No, it's your turn, Yes, it's my turn, etc.) Being able respond to these kinds of statements and questions not only calls for abilities in pronoun use, but also for the ability to confirm/disconfirm, take turns in this game, refute and obviously, how to play the matching game. Appropriate use and responses to pronouns indicates that children are squarely 'in the pronoun language game'. At last.

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