Incidental Learning with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students

The issue

Before reading this bulletin, reflect and contemplate about how and where most of your learning is retained – from or beyond classroom instruction. How is knowledge constructed and accumulated?

General education school settings provide students access to formal learning or classroom instruction, however, informal and incidental learning opportunities outside the classroom are typically not accessible for deaf*. Those who have hearing privileges take informal and incidental learning for granted and may not realize the marginalization phenomenon that have been placed on deaf* students because ongoing, dynamic, fluid surrounding conversations are spoken-laden. As such, many deaf * students are marginalized to the periphery of their school community, becoming relegated to the role of bystanding, not realizing how accessing incidental information impacts learning or development of knowledge.

What we know

Incidental learning results from external stimuli in surrounding interactions. These stimuli are only attuned to for seconds, and can be auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. Information from these stimuli are either tuned out, stored consciously, stored subconsciously, or attended to, and may be comprehended in the moment, or at a later time. The learning takes place when these stimuli are understood by associating them with prior/new knowledge. Ultimately, those who have access have choices for participation.

There are three fundamental criteria that distinguish the differences between formal, informal, and incidental learning which are: the type of environment, the existence of an agenda or plan, and the existence of an audience. Formal learning naturally occurs in a structured environment with an agenda or plan and with an audience. In contrast, informal learning typically occurs in a loosely or non-structured environment with or without an agenda or plan and with an audience. Incidental learning is ubiquitous, yet situated, contextual, and social, without an agenda/plan and without an audience.

For some time, we have addressed the issues of accessibility during formal instruction, but the access issue continues beyond the formal instruction. Accessing incidental learning opportunities can boost literacy and vocabulary development. Access to incidental learning fosters an individual’s fund of knowledge, starting at home and continues within the community. Ultimately, incidental learning is a lifelong, social, and academic phenomenon. Historically, we have placed the problems associated with incidental learning on deaf* children when the issue is actually a societal attitude. Instead of focusing on what deaf* individuals cannot do or have limited access to, a better solution may be to conceptualize how we all can make the environment accessible for them.

What we don’t know

 There is still a need to research and document incidental learning opportunities for deaf* individuals of hearing parents and deaf* students living in areas without access to Deaf language models and community. Furthermore, there is a need to investigate the impact of Deaf space or ASL-immersion schools or programs on incidental learning opportunities. Can technology interventions provide equal access to incidental learning opportunities? What kind of impact can support service providers (SSPs) provide for incidental learning opportunities outside classroom instruction? Lastly, dialogues should be encouraged to examine the relationships between language deprivation and incidental learning opportunities.


Accessing incidental learning involves an accumulation of knowledge. This inconclusive list of awareness or skills are enhanced when incidental learning opportunities are accessible.

  • Negotiating
  • Finance Management
  • College/Career Planning
  • Health Literacy
  • Leadership
  • Local/Global Issues
  • Problem Solving
  • Relationships
  • Social Maturity

The more full or immediate access there is to incidental information, the more options are available to participate. Moreover, the participation would include assuming various roles in conversations rather than being limited to the bystanding role (see diagram). Such access provides opportunities for connectedness and knowledge reconstruction. Accessing incidental learning opportunities influences how one perceives her/his sense of community membership, where s/he can be more inquisitive and contributing or sharing ideas and talents.

Parents, teachers, SSPs, and administrators should engage in discussions, during Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings, and request that accessible incidental learning opportunities should be created beyond classroom instruction. Such decisions cannot be based on staff availability, funding, or convenience. Considerations should include hiring qualified Deaf and hard-of-hearing personnel and promoting environments that would encourage a critical mass of deaf* students, where there are more opportunities for members to share a common, intelligible, and accessible language. A strategy might be an implementation of a center program where deaf* students from neighboring districts converge.

* deaf is used here to refer to all deaf and hard of hearing people regardless of hearing abilities or language preferences

Posted on Oct. 4, 2019 by
Mindy J. Hopper
National Technical Institute for the Deaf

Editor’s note: This post was originally published Oct. 4, 2019, and was updated for language and clarity on Nov. 15, 2019.

Further reading