A reflection on explicit and incidental vocabulary learning techniques.

A reflection on explicit and incidental vocabulary learning techniques.

Diary submitted by Lorenzo R. Valencia

What is the best way to learn vocabulary?
A reflection on explicit and incidental vocabulary learning techniques

When a student is learning a new language, oftentimes her classes will focus on the four main blocks, these being reading, speaking, listening and writing, along with the occasional addition of grammar. However, there is a sixth and very important block that is often not treated as such: the vocabulary.

In fact, expanding the range of one’s lexicon may be quite complicated, since learning by heart new words devoid of their contexts rarely proves effective, as they can be easily forgotten. This memorising method belongs to the ‘explicit learning’ approaches, which Sonbul and Schmitt refer to as those learning techniques that focus on the acquisition of new words. Conversely, by ‘incidental learning’ they indicate the array of methods where the focal point is not on the assimilation of new vocabulary. In other words, it is an unconscious process as it is the indirect consequence of the main activities that are undertaken, such as listening to a recording or a TV programme, or reading a novel, a newspaper article, or a social media post. It is important to underscore that the former is often linked to traditional methodologies and the latter to more modern ones. Consequently, in recent time, an increasing number of research debunking the explicit vocabulary learning approach while defending in-depth analyses on incidental techniques have sprung up. These have suggested a host of new styles, ranging from the use of songs when targeting a young population to the creation of an environment that could boost students’ confidence. Moreover, the former is thought to be more suited for rapid acquisition of vocabulary, whereas the latter is claimed to foster a more robust and wide range of vocabulary, albeit at the expenses of accuracy.

What I could direct experience, both as a L2 student first, and teacher later, is that memorising along with other explicit practices are often less efficacious than incidental ones. This is arguably a by-process of the minor pressure that students put on themselves, since vocabulary is not the main focus, thus fostering a more receptive and eager-to-learn attitude. In fact, after been told that the main concern is their pronunciation, when reading a text, students tend to ask for the meaning of words more often than in those cases where no mention to their pronunciation was made. Similarly, in speaking practice classes, where arguably the emphasis is on the ability to express one’s thoughts and opinions using the knowledge they already possess, students are more likely to ask for synonyms or alternative constructions to avoid repetitions.

To conclude, those methods aimed at improving the vocabulary can be grouped under the explicit and incidental approaches, according to which is their priority. Although the former ones are still in practice, they are often regarded as outdated and traded in for the latter, which, in my experience, have proven to be more effective.


  • Coyle, Yvette, and Remei Gómez Garcia. 2014. «Using songs to enhance L2 vocabulary acquisition in preschool children.» ELT Journal 68 (3): 276-285.
  • Issitt, Steve. 2008. «Imprving scores on the IELTS speaking test .» ELT Journal 62 (2): 131-138.
  • Kholi, Roya, and Samira Sharrififar. 2013. «Memorization versus semantic mapping in L2 vocabulary acquisition.» ELT Journal 67 (2): 199-209.
  • Sonbul, Suhad, and Norbert Schmitt. 2010. «Direct teaching of vocabulary after reading: is it worth the effort?» ELT Journal 64 (3): 253-260.