Promoting indirect vocabulary learning in the EFL classroom

How can we ‘implicitly’ boost our learners’ acquisition of TL lexis?

Here are 7 tips on selecting authentic materials and tasks to promote indirect vocabulary learning in the EFL classroom

    The term ‘incidental vocabulary learning’ is used to describe the acquisition of new TL lexis without any explicit instruction or focus on its meaning and usage. If we carefully select the tasks and the materials we use in the language classroom as well as the TL input we expose our learners to, we can successfully contribute to their interlanguage development by implicitly helping them to turn their input into intake and increase their vocabulary knowledge in the foreign language.

    Below are some key points to consider when selecting authentic materials and tasks for the EFL classroom in order to boost our learners’ incidental vocabulary acquisition.

  1. Focus on the cognitive dimension: Inferring meaning from context

    Indirect vocabulary learning shifts the attention from the teacher centered classroom and the explicit teaching of lexis (using definitions, word cards and lists) to the learners as ‘discoverers’ of the meaning of new lexis. When selecting tasks and texts in order to promote vocabulary learning in the TL, it is useful to have in mind Craik and Lockhart’s ‘Depth of Processing’ (DOP) hypothesis (1972) in which they argue that the more mental work we have to do to learn something, the longer it sticks. In order for our students to ‘pick up’ new lexis from the input we expose them to it is therefore important to focus on selecting interesting materials and to accompany them with consciousness raising tasks that will boost learner involvement. Noticing will successfully take place once our learners are alert and ready to absorb the new linguistic information we expose them to. In order to achieve this, we need to improve their attention span and create the ideal learning conditions that will boost their intrinsic motivation and will make them eager to participate in the language lesson.

2. Authentic materials: focus on useful and meaningful input

    In many EFL teaching environments, students have limited exposure to L2 input outside the language classroom. For effective learning to take place, it is therefore important to ‘feed’ our learners with useful, meaningful, authentic input and not just stick to coursebook material. When we enrich our lesson with authentic materials we do not only expose our learners to real life language use, but we also expand their knowledge on the target culture, the people, their lifestyles, beliefs and values.

    As Nuttall (1996:179) points out, when selecting authentic materials for our EFL classroom we should mainly focus on whether or not they support our “overall teaching purpose and learning objectives”. We should be able not only to achieve our lesson’s goals but also to transfer knowledge to our students, to introduce them to new ideas, to widen their knowledge of the target culture and at the same time foster critical thinking.

    With regard to promoting the incidental learning of lexis, it is important to expose our learners to a variety of TL input: we need to focus on extensive reading (ex. stories, book extracts, newspaper articles, materials used for real life purposes) as well as enriching our lesson with authentic listening materials (interviews, news broadcasts, podcasts, YouTube clips, movies, songs, etc.). The language in the texts/audio/video should reflect written or spoken usage (i.e. examples of ‘natural’ English, with a variety of genres, idioms etc.). We must verify that the materials provide examples of common, natural language use and that they serve real life communicative purposes in the target language. We also need to check whether the new lexis our students will encounter in the texts will be useful for their future and whether they will be able to incorporate it in their active vocabulary and use it in real life situations.

3. Focus on our learners’ level and specific needs

    Incidental vocabulary learning and the effect it can have on our learners’ linguistic development greatly depends upon our students’ level and vocabulary knowledge. Beginner levels with limited TL vocabulary will need more scaffolding and guidance in order to indirectly pick up new words, whereas more advanced levels will be able to use their previous knowledge of TL lexis in order to effectively ‘notice’ the patterns in the foreign language and use contextual clues to infer the meaning of unknown words and structures.

    When selecting authentic materials for our EFL classroom (listening materials, videos, book extracts etc.), we also need to take into consideration our learners’ specific needs and whether or not the lexis found in the TL input contains useful examples of language use that our students will be able to memorize and use in the future (not only for their language exams but also for real life communicative purposes).

4. Focus on the affective dimension: the role of emotional involvement to language learning

    When promoting indirect vocabulary acquisition in the language classroom we should also keep in mind the ‘emotional aspect’ and how it can be used to attract their attention and boost vocabulary learning. Schouten van Parreren (1989) and Elley (1989) stress the importance of this ‘affective dimension’ to language learning and argue that being amused, surprised, etc. can add to our learners’ ‘emotional involvement’ with the TL input (the text, the words) and can increase the probability of lasting learning taking place.

5. Task authenticity: focus on learner interaction

    It is important to always remember the effectiveness of accompanying real life TL materials with authentic, communicative tasks that promote learner involvement and boost their creativity. The more opportunities our learners have for language production, the more they will begin to notice and try to produce certain structures in order to negotiate meaning in the TL. Students become more conscious with regard to particular language features and this promotes language awareness and acquisition. Pair work and group work can greatly contribute to the acquisition of new lexis. Communicative tasks will not only boost learner involvement and our students’ intrinsic motivation, but will also help our students pick up new words and lexical chunks by taking part in conversations and problem solving activities.

    Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the newly acquired lexical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.

6. From ‘intake’ to ‘output’: turning ‘noticing’ into active knowledge

When focusing on promoting vocabulary acquisition, our main aim should not be for our students to merely notice new lexis or grammar through the linguistic input of the authentic materials. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking. The tasks that we will decide to accompany the materials need to be carefully selected in order to satisfy our learners’ needs and different learning styles.

    Recycling and repetition:

    It is important to note here that if our students have encountered one word in a specific context they might not be able to understand it in another (ex. “round the corner”, “I’ ll be round later”). Or they may have picked up a new word but not use it as part of their active vocabulary. Recycling and repetition are therefore crucial to successful vocabulary learning and for input to become intake. However, recycling should not mean testing but giving the students opportunities for further practice in order to incorporate the new words to their mental lexicon. In order for our learners to effectively memorize and learn a specific language structure in the TL, we must create the necessary conditions for them to encounter the structure more than once and to be able to practice it and eventually adopt it in their written and spoken output. After all practice makes perfect.  

7. Focus on learner autonomy

    In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement during the lesson, we must also encourage independent thinking. As Hedge (2000:126) points out, our main role as teachers is to ‘build independence’ in our learners by teaching them good strategies for independent vocabulary learning. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use (listening strategies, reading strategies, organization, etc.) to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it. They must be trained to set their own personal goals, to notice what their strengths and weaknesses are and to reflect on what they should be focusing on based on their individual needs. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.


Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671–684.

Elley, W. B. 1989. Vocabulary acquisition from stories. Reading Research Quarterly. 183-189.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nagy, 1997. In Schmitt, N. and M. McCarthy. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press.

Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language Heinemann

Scherfer, P. 1993. Indirect L2 Vocabulary Learning. Linguistics, 31 1141-1153

Schouten van Parreren, C. 1989. Vocabulary learning through reading: which conditions should be met when presenting words in texts? AILA Review, 6, 75-85

Vidal, K. (2003). Academic Listening: A Source of Vocabulary Acquisition? Applied Linguistics, OUP 24(1), 56-89

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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