Volume III - 1995-1996

Multiple Intelligences and Second Language Learners
by Mary Ann Christison

      Dr. Mary Ann Christison is a professor of ESL/English and director of the International Center at Snow College and teaches graduate courses in the M.A. in TESL/TEFL program at the University of Utah. She is co-author of several teacher resource books for language teachers including Purple Cows and Potato Chips, Drawing Out, Community Spirit, and Look who's Talking. Mary Ann works as language consultant both within the United states and abroad. Since 1993 she has been serving on the Board of Directors of the TESOL organization and was Convention Chair of the TESOL '95 Convention in Long Beach in March of 1995.

      Nature endows a child with a sensitiveness to order. It is a kind of inner sense that distinguishes the relationships between various objects themselves. It thus makes a whole of an environment in which the several parts are mutually dependent. When a person is oriented in such an environment, he can direct his activity to the attainment of specific goals. Such an environment provides the foundation for an integrated life.
-Maria Montessori (1972, p. 55)


      Intelligence holds a certain mystique in Western society. Most people, it seems, are awed by their perception of it in others, perhaps even becoming defensive at the thought that their own intelligence might not measure up. Marilyn Vos Savant, the individual who has the world's highest recorded score on an IQ test, is often referred to as the most intelligent person in the world. Most of us are unable to define precisely what the term "intelligent" means in this context, but she is highly regarded for having lots of it. Because intelligence is so difficult to define as a single construct, most of us have no idea whether we are intelligent. Many of us have chosen not to find out. Years ago while taking an undergraduate education class, I was given the opportunity to take an IQ test. The teacher had arranged for the entire class to be tested in order to encourage us to know more about educational tests. He also gave us extra credit on our final grades for taking the test. Even though the test was free, the time was convenient and extra credit would be given, only 25 percent of the class took him up on his offer. Of those who participated, more than two-thirds had taken the test previously. Why didn't the rest of us take this teacher up on his offer? I cannot speak for the other 75 percent, but I did not take the test because I did not want to find out that I was not intelligent. I was afraid it would be too discouraging. I didn't want to know how limited I might be. My guess is that other students in the class may have felt the same way.

      In the mid-1980's, when I heard colleagues in other disciplines mention multiple intelligences, I must admit that I didn't look into the topic right away because of my fears about intelligence as a single construct: those fears expanded greatly at the mention of multiple intelligences and quite possibly multiple constructs. It sounded complicated. I was certain it involved many statistical procedures that I wouldn't understand.

      One day, I was in the library looking for a resource book for a class I was teaching. Howard Gardner's book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) fell into my hands. Thumbing through the book, I remembered my feelings about intelligence tests, but I read several passages and was attracted almost immediately. Gardner said that our Western culture had defined intelligence too narrowly. He also seriously questioned the validity of taking people out of their natural learning environments and asking them to do isolated tasks as a measure of intelligence. Gardner suggested that intelligence had more to do with our capacity for solving problems in natural settings. All of these concepts made sense to me as an educator. I checked the book out of the library, began reading and studying, and have been applying multiple intelligence theory in my second language classrooms ever since.

      Today many second language educators know about Gardner's theory. They can even name the seven intelligences and give examples of how they have used these intelligences in their own lives. However, it has been my observation that few second language educators actually consider the seven intelligences in their lesson plans and overall curriculum. The purpose of this paper is twofold: to introduce language educators to the theory of multiple intelligences, and to demonstrate how to use multiple intelligences in lesson planning, language learning tasks, and assessment.

The Seven Intelligences

      Gardner (1983) grouped human capabilities into seven categories which he called "intelligences." Weinreich-Haste (1985) claims that many people are surprised at some of the categories because they have never thought about these areas as being related to "intelligence."

Linguistic Intelligence:
      People who are linguistically intelligent have the ability to use words effectively both orally and in writing. They are effective in using language in a variety of ways--to convince others to do something, to remember information, and to talk about language itself.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence:
      The ability to use numbers effectively and to reason well is a good indicator of logical-mathematical intelligence. People with this kind of intelligence are good at categorizing, classifying, inferencing, generalizing, calculating, and hypothesis testing.

Spatial Intelligence:
      This intelligence includes a sensitivity to form, space, color, line, and shape. It also includes the ability to graphically represent visual or spatial ideas.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence:
      A person with this kind of intelligence has the ability to express ideas and feelings with the entire body. This ability includes such physical skills as coordination, flexibility, speed, balance, etc. Actors, mimes, athletes, sculptors, mechanics, surgeons, or dancers often demonstrate this type of intelligence.

Musical Intelligence:
      This intelligence includes people who are very sensitive to rhythm, pitch or melody. It is demonstrated by people who have an intuitive, global understanding of music as well as by people whose understanding is more technical.

Interpersonal Intelligence:
      The ability to sense another person's moods, feelings, motivations, and intentions demonstrates this kind of intelligence. Interpersonal intelligence also includes the ability to respond effectively to other people in some pragmatic way, such as influencing them to follow a certain action.

Intrapersonal Intelligence:
      Having an accurate picture of yourself and being aware of your inner moods, intentions, temperaments, and desires is known as intrapersonal intelligence.

Differences from Talents and Aptitudes

      Many educators look at these categories and wonder why Gardner calls them intelligences. Why aren't they talents or aptitudes? In order to show the difference between an intelligence and an aptitude or talent, Gardner identified basic "signs" that an intelligence might exhibit in order to be considered an intelligence and not a talent or an aptitude. Armstrong (1995) summarized these "signs" and placed them into the following categories.

1. They must be susceptible to isolation by brain damage. Assuming that there are brain structures for each intelligence, brain lesions can impair one intelligence while leaving all the others intact.

2. Evidence of single intelligences can be seen operating at very high levels in savants and prodigies. An example of this is the musical savant who can play a piano composition after hearing it only once.

3. There should be an identifiable developmental history of the intelligence. There are certain activities associated with each intelligence in an individual's growth. Each activity has a time of beginning in early childhood and a time of peaking during one's lifetime. For example, musical intelligence seems to peak early in order to develop a high level of proficiency.

4. The intelligence must be rooted in evolutionary history. Gardner hypothesized that each of the seven intelligences has its roots deeply embedded in the evolution of human beings. We find written notations in early cultures demonstrating the presence of linguistic intelligence. We also find early tool use showing bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

5. The existence of an intelligence may be supported by psychometric findings. Gardner is no champion of standardized testing, but he does suggest that we can look at standardized tests for support of the theory of multiple intelligences. In the Wechsler Intelligence Scale, for example, children are asked questions that require linguistic intelligence (e.g., vocabulary), logical-mathematical intelligence (e.g., arithmetic), and spatial intelligence (e.g., picture arrangement).

6. The intelligence must be supported by results of psychological experiments. Gardner believes that psychological tasks are a good way to see the intelligences working in isolation from one another. Subjects may master a specific skill, such as reading, but they do not transfer that success to logical-mathematical intelligence. In other words, even though they can read well (i.e., they may have a high linguistic intelligence), they might not be able to do mathematics (i.e., they may have a low mathematics intelligence).

7. An intelligence must have an identifiable set of core operations. Each intelligence has a different set of required operations in order for it to function. For example in musical intelligence the core operations may be the ability to discriminate among different musical notes and among various rhythmic structures.

8. An intelligence can be symbolized. For example, computer languages (e.g., Pascal) are learned easily by people with well-developed logical-mathematical intelligence, and Morse Code is learned by those with a well-developed musical intelligence. Gardner emphasizes that his multiple intelligence model is tentative and there may well be more than seven intelligences.

Key Points for Language Teachers and Students

      According to Gardner, each person possesses all seven intelligences to varying degrees. This does not mean that we may be highly developed in all seven areas- -it is particularly important to remember this in relation to second language learners. Our students, like most people, may be highly developed in one or two intelligences, moderately developed in one or two, and underdeveloped in the rest. Each intelligence functions in ways unique to each person; no one is the same as anyone else.

      Gardner suggests that everyone has the capacity to develop all seven intelligences to a reasonably high level. This is encouraging for language educators. Success in helping our second language learners develop their intelligences--including linguistic intelligence--is a combination of the right environmental influences and quality instruction. Both of these are factors we can help control.

      Intelligences work together in complex ways. Because no intelligence exists by itself, language learning activities may be successful because they actively encourage the use of several intelligences. I think of two traditional language learning activities like "Twenty Questions" or "Strip Story" (Christison and Bassano, 1995). Most language teachers and learners feel that learning takes place when these activities are used. Perhaps one reason they are so popular is that several intelligences are needed to carry out each activity. In "Twenty Questions," students have the name of an object or animal pinned to their backs. Everyone else knows the word on the student's back, but the student does not. Students find out by milling around, asking classmates "yes/no" questions until they discover who or what they are. In the "Strip Story" activity, each students receives a slip of paper containing part of a story. Students memorize their parts, give back their slips, and then proceed to line up and put the story back in the proper order. In these activities the students use linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic and logical- mathematical intelligences. If you ask students to tell you how they got their answers, you can also include intrapersonal intelligences.

      Within each intelligence category, there are many different ways to be intelligent. For example, I have a friend who claims he has no bodily- kinesthetic intelligence because he does not participate in any sports. Yet, he built a fence around his property and added a deck to his home. I remind him that it takes a great deal of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to complete these projects.

Individual Multiple Intelligence Profiles

      Armstrong (1995) believes that before we apply any model of learning in the classroom, we should apply it to ourselves as educators. Therefore, the first step in using Multiple Intelligence Theory is to determine our own multiple intelligence profile. If you have not taken an MI Inventory recently, I encourage you to refer to Appendix A in the Armstrong volume at this time and take the MI Inventory for Adults. As you learn more about your own profile, you will become more confident in the choices you make that affect your teaching. The purpose of the Inventory is to connect your life's experiences to the idea of multiple intelligences. The types of learning activities you choose as a teacher are often directly related to the totality of your experiences and in turn affect the multiple intelligence profile of your students. For example, if you grew up on a farm, you may have had many more opportunities to develop your bodily-kinesthetic intelligence than someone who grew up in a city.

      Consequently, as an adult, you may naturally choose activities that complement your own intelligence in that area, such as the familiar "strip story," the ESL version of "Mother, May I" or role plays.

Explaining MI Theory .

      Recent research supports the idea that learners benefit from instructional approaches that help them reflect on their own learning (Marzano, 1988), so the first step is to explain MI Theory to your language learners. Armstrong (1995) offers suggestions such as "The Multiple Intelligence Pizza." He begins by telling students that they are all smart and asks them to tell him some of the different ways they can be smart. As students respond, he writes their answers on the seven slices of "pizza" in the circle. Armstrong accepts all answers but includes only the seven smarts or a version of them on the pizza. The "smarts" according to Armstrong are: self smart, word smart, logic smart, people smart, music smart, body smart, and picture smart. This approach uses language and concepts students understand plus visual reinforcement. Once students understand the different ways they can be smart, they can take their own MI inventory and begin evaluating their own learning activities.

Keeping Track.

      The next step is to chart what you are already doing. It is important to have a clear idea of your own teaching style as it applies to MI Theory. Figure 1 below shows the chart I used for Day One of a two-week study to track my own teaching. It will be noted that my brief analysis did not turn up anything in the categories "Mathematical/Logical" and "Musical."

Figure 1
Day One: Multiple Intelligence Tracking Chart
Course: Intermediate Reading
: Astronomy

Intelligences                                                             Activity Types
Linguistic: Students gave oral presentations on their posters.
Spatial: The charts included planet arranged according to size and pictures. __________________________________________________
Bodily-Kinesthetic: Students placed charts on the walls and made presentations. __________________________________________________
Musical: __________________________________________________
Interpersonal: Students took part in a 1-paper, 2-people short chapter review. __________________________________________________
Intrapersonal: The chart activity asked students to draw on what they had learned and to present what they felt was important. The questioning at the end of the hour was reflective in nature.

      At the end of the two-week period, I came to an awareness of how MI theory informed language teaching and learning in my classroom. My decisions about activities were made by choice and not by accident. I also learned some interesting facts about the relationship between the learning activities I chose and my own MI profile and life's experiences.

Including Intelligences.

      Once I became better informed about MI theory and my own profile, I could begin to look at the learning activities I chose for my classes from that frame of reference. In the example introduced above, I developed four generic strategies for using logical-mathematical intelligence and musical intelligence--two for each intelligence. In planning my lessons, I made certain to include at least one of these activities each week. Once I had the generic strategies, it was quite simple to change the content. For example, in order to include activities for musical intelligence, I taught the students the tunes and words to "Skip to My Lou" and "Michael Row Your Boat." Next, I asked the students to work in groups and create new words to the songs using the content from the chapters. Many students blossomed with this activity. Some students found the content much easier to remember when it was part of a song. Seldom did the class lack for student performers. One student even brought his guitar to class for his group's performance.


      The next step was for me to match my methods of assessment to my language- learning activities. I wanted to make certain that my work was balanced for intelligences addressed not only in terms of the learning activities I provided, but also in the way I was assessing my students. Armstrong (1995) suggests creating 49 assessment contexts. So for each linguistic task for example, you create seven different generic assessments, one for each of the seven intelligences. I might ask my students to read an article. This is a linguistic task. My method of assessment could include writing a response. In this case, I would have a linguistic task with a linguistic assessment. However, if I asked the students to read an article and draw a picture, I would be using a spatial assessment. If they read an article and shared it with a partner, they would be using interpersonal intelligence as a means of assessment. I often allow students to choose the task and method of assessment from two or three alternatives. For an intermediate ESL reading class I taught, I let students decide how they wanted to let me know what they had learned in the astronomy chapter. Some chose to write papers, others made wonderful charts and displays, while one young man composed an original song about the planets in our solar system. Considering both assessment and task in addressing multiple intelligences greatly broadens and enhances a teacher's opportunities for creativity and imagination.


      Feldman (1980), Walters and Gardner (1986) and Gardner (1993) have developed and worked with the concepts of crystallizing and paralyzing experiences. These are what they call the turning points in our lives. They most often happen during childhood, but they can happen at any time during our lives. I remember being told the story of Albert Einstein by my mathematics teacher in high school. When he was four years old, his father showed him a magnetic compass. It was this little compass that instilled in Einstein the desire to explore the nature of the universe and ultimately started him on the journey toward making monumental contributions in the field of physics. This little experience with the compass was a crystallizing experience for Einstein. It moved him to develop especially his logical-mathematical intelligence. Paralyzing experiences have just the opposite effect. They propel us to shut down an intelligence. I often wonder about the contributions of Mozart or Shakespeare. Would they have contributed in the same way in a different environment? Would either genius have blossomed in a culture where music or theater was considered the work of the devil?

      As a language educator, I want to see my students have crystallizing experiences, those little sparks that " . . . light an intelligence and start its development toward maturity" (Armstrong, 1995, p. 22). It seems logical that Multiple Intelligence Theory can move us in that direction. It offers a model that can help language educators understand how their own learning style affects their teaching style and, ultimately, how that teaching style can affect student learning. I hope that this article has provided you with the beginning tools for understanding this theory. I also hope it has begun to open the door to an even broader range of considerations for choice of task and assessment in your lesson planning and curriculum development.


Armstrong, T. (1995). Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Christison, MA and S.K. Bassano (1995). Look Who's Talking! Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Publishers.

Feldman, D.H. (1980). Beyond Universals in Cognitive Development. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Gardner H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Marzano, R.J., R.S. Brandt, C.S. Huges, B.F. Jones, B.Z. Presseisen, and S.C. Rankin. (1988). Dimension of Thinking: A Framework for Curriculum and Instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Montessori, M. (1972). The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine.

Vos Savant, M. (1995). "Ask Marilyn." Parade Magazine, May 21, 1995, 20.

Weinreich-Haste, H. (1985). "The Varieties of Intelligence: An Interview with Howard Gardner." New Ideas in Psychology 3/4 47-65.

Walters, J. and H. Gardner (1986). "The Crystallizing Experience: Discovery of an Intellectual Gift." In Conceptions of Giftedness, edited by R. Sternberg and J. Davidson. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weinstein, C. (1979), "The Physical Environment of the School: A Review of the Research." Review of Educational Research 49, 4: 585.

The author would like to thank Cameron J. Beatty for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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