Published 8th April 2019

incidental learning

English as a Foreign Language students come to our classrooms to learn English. They expect to be taught grammar and vocabulary, practise using the four skills of the language, and walk out of the classroom with a higher level of English than when they came in. Thankfully, this can happen and, for the most part, usually does. However, we mustn’t forget that a lot of learning can take place outside the classroom, when it is least expected. This is known as incidental learning.

Incidental learning

Incidental learning is accidental or unplanned learning. It is learning which takes place as a result of everyday life rather than formal instruction. Incidental learning takes place when we are doing other activities. It occurs through observation, repetition, social interaction and problem-solving.

Incidental learning and our English language learners

Incidental learning can be a useful addition to formal instruction. Our learners come into our classrooms to experience formal instruction but they can also learn while they are outside the classroom, when they least expect it. By introducing them to the concept of incidental learning we can extend the amount of time our learners are exposed to English. In other words, they are not only learning English for the hour a week they are in the classroom with us, but for however long they are using the language.

There are a number of reasons incidental learning is effective, but the most important is that it is fun. Incidental learning is done when a person is doing something for their enjoyment, not for the sake of learning. When it comes to our learners, we should encourage them to watch movies, listen to music, read books, play computer games or chat online – all in English. This will promote incidental learning.

If our students have the benefit of living in an English-speaking community, incidental learning can be particularly useful. Living in a community where English is spoken means your students will be forced to use English in everyday situations. They may need to open a bank account, find an apartment or set up Wi-Fi. These are real situations which require real language, with the added benefit of having a high level of motivation attached to them.

However, many students will shy away from such situations and try to get by with as little English as possible, either by avoiding the situation completely or by asking a friend with better English to help them.

As a teacher, you can encourage incidental learning in this situation by giving your students real-life tasks to complete in their free time. Give them a set of questions which will require communicating with the local community. For example:

  • How can you open a bank account?
  • Where is the closest museum?
  • How much is a train ticket to X?

Your students will need to engage with the language, be it spoken or written, to be able to complete the task. If you make the questions relevant to your students, so that they actually need or want the answers to the questions, they will approach the task with motivation and energy and so benefit from incidental learning.