Incidental Learning

Incidental learning is what we learn through all the informal interactions (visual, audio, or kinesthetic) we have with others in public settings. For students, incidental learning is a large part of their social and cognitive development and makes a significant impact on their interactions with their peers.

The learning from the exposure and access to these experiences can enhance literacy and contribute to the student’s’ development of vocabulary. Incidental Learning is a crucial building block for knowledge.

However, for Deaf/HH students, although they too are constantly surrounded by this type of learning, they do not necessarily have access to it. Hearing students can also apply what they learn from this incidental learning to what they learn in the classroom, but as more and more Deaf/HH students are mainstreamed alone or with a few other of their Deaf/HH peers, they are missing out on this wealth of incidental information and scaffolding opportunities.

Differentiating Learning Types

The characteristics that define these are the environment type, presence of agenda/plan, and presence of an audience:

Formal Learning requires all three elements to be present.

Informal Learning – loosely/non-structured environment, plan or agenda is optional, requires an audience.

Incidental Learning – takes place anywhere/everywhere, no plan, no audience.

Social Capital grows out of the connections that individuals form with their family members, friends, and other communities, (e.g., faith community, school, etc.) Research informs us that greater social capital results in increased information sharing, cooperation, and trust.

Bonding Social Capital natural inclination to be with those like ourselves.

Bridging Social Capital – as the name implies, connections between individuals that are very different from one another.

Summaries of Studies on the Impact of Incidental Learning

  • In the general education environment, Incidental Learning (IL) opportunities take place outside the classroom, are presented as spoken conversations, and typically are not readily accessible to deaf students.
  • Access to IL experiences results in learning, and that learning takes place either in the moment or after the fact, and the individual stores the information consciously or subconsciously.
  • IL provides supplemental, and necessary, beneficial knowledge and connectedness.
  • Learning is multi-directional and participation allows knowledge to be shared among and between students, both deaf and hearing.
  • According to Hopper (2011) scaffolding works in conjunction with IL and takes place in whatever circumstances the student finds her/himself in. When the deaf student is denied access to IL opportunities their ability to reconstruct knowledge is significantly diminished.  
  • Deaf/hh students need to be brought into more informal and incidental conversations through improved access to those opportunities that can lead to companionship-these experiences contribute to social capital.
  • Social capital begins to form for most in the K-12 years when opportunities for connections are so prevalent. Deaf/hh kids need other d/hh kids to develop a strong sense of identity and awareness.
  • In traditional classroom settings, the burden of managing and overcoming communication barriers has been on the deaf/hh student. This task consumes enormous amounts of time, energy, and effort by the student/child.
  • Developing Bridging and Bonding social capital requires access to consistent and frequent conversations with others.

What Can Teachers do?

To include these types of learning opportunities for their Deaf/HH students, some suggested strategies are:

  • Create a positive inclusive classroom/school environment by looking for ways to include deaf/hh student(s) in conversations beyond the role of onlooker.
  • Engage in conversations during IEP meetings with parents, admin, and others, exploring accessible incidental learning opportunities beyond the classroom.
  • Model your behavior for your students and peers – Treat your deaf student(s) like any other student. Model inclusion, curiosity, and the belief that everyone has something to offer to the conversation.
  • Support the growth of Bonding and Bridging social capital – Encourage 2-way communication and learning between and amongst deaf/hh students and between deaf/hh and hearing classmates.
  • Create short duration positive exercises to encourage inclusion and understanding between d/hh and hearing students (e.g., sign of the day, role play to experience what incidental learning really is, and who is missing out, etc.).


Further Readings:

Oliva, G. A., Lytle, L. R., Hopper, M., & Ostrove, J. M. (2016). From social periphery to social centrality: Building social capital for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the 21st century. In M. Marschark, V. Lampropoulou, & E. K. Skordilis (Eds.) Diversity in deaf education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Oxford University Press. (2019, November 15). Raising and Educating Deaf Children: Raising and Educating Deaf Children: Foundations for Policy, Practice and Outcomes. http://www.raisingandeducatingdeafchildren.org/2019/10/04/incidental-learning-with-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-students/

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National Technical Institute for the Deaf
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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Numbers 1104229, 1501756, and 1902474.