We know little about the way mature CD4 (helper) and CD8 (killer) T cells develop from thymic CD4+CD8+ precursors. Here we show that small but not large CD4+CD8+ cells with high levels of the αβ T cell receptor (TcRhigh) result from positive selection. Neither CD4+CD8+ cells with low TcR levels nor large CD4+CD8+ thymocytes with high TcR levels differentiate in vitro. However, small CD4+CD8+ cells with high TcR levels develop in vitro into mature cells by gradually decreasing the surface levels of one or the other co‐receptor and acquiring the potential to respond with proliferation to ligation of the TcR. Small CD4+CD8+ cells with high levels of a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I‐restricted transgenic TcR develop in vitro exclusively into CD4−CD8+ cells while small CD4+CD8+ TcRhigh cells with heterogeneous TcR from various mice yield both CD4 and CD8 T cells. While these experiments are consistent with an instructive model of CD4/CD8 lineage commitment they do not rule out other mechanisms which require multiple TcR‐MHC ligand interactions in the generation of mature αβ T cells.