Multiple Intelligences: Theory and Practice in
Adult ESL. ERIC Digest.
by Christison, Mary Ann - Kennedy, Deborah
The theory of multiple intelligences (MI) broadens the traditional view
of intelligence as solely composed of verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical
abilities. MI theory maintains that all humans possess at least eight different
intelligences that represent a variety of ways to learn and demonstrate
understanding. This digest outlines the basic tenets of MI theory and describes
how it has been applied in teaching English as a second language (ESL)
THE THEORY OF MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES
Intelligence has traditionally been defined in terms of intelligence
quotient (IQ), which measures a narrow range of verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical
abilities. Howard Gardner (1993) argues that humans possess a number of
distinct intelligences that manifest themselves in different skills and
abilities. All human beings apply these intelligences to solve problems,
invent processes, and create things. Intelligence, according to MI theory,
is being able to apply one or more of the intelligences in ways that are
valued by a community or culture. The current MI model outlines eight intelligences,
although Gardner (1999) continues to explore additional possibilities.
* Linguistic Intelligence: The ability to use language effectively both
orally and in writing.
* Logical/Mathematical Intelligence: The ability to use numbers effectively
and reason well.
* Visual/Spatial Intelligence: The ability to recognize form, space,
color, line, and shape and to graphically represent visual and spatial
* Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence: The ability to use the body to express
ideas and feelings and to solve problems.
* Musical Intelligence: The ability to recognize rhythm, pitch, and
* Naturalist Intelligence: The ability to recognize and classify plants,
minerals, and animals.
* Interpersonal Intelligence: The ability to understand another person's
feelings, motivations, and intentions and to respond effectively.
* Intrapersonal Intelligence: The ability to know about and understand
oneself and recognize one's similarities to and differences from others.
APPLICATION OF MI THEORY WITH ADULT ESL LEARNERS
Rather than functioning as a prescribed teaching method, curriculum,
or technique, MI theory provides a way of understanding intelligence, which
teachers can use as a guide for developing classroom activities that address
multiple ways of learning and knowing (Christison, 1999b). Teaching strategies
informed by MI theory can transfer some control from teacher to learners
by giving students choices in the ways they will learn and demonstrate
their learning. By focusing on problem-solving activities that draw on
multiple intelligences, these teaching strategies encourage learners to
build on existing strengths and knowledge to learn new content and skills
(Kallenbach, 1999). It may also mean the adult learners who have had little
success in traditional classrooms where only linguistic and mathematics
skills are valued may experience more success when other intelligences
are tapped. Likewise, adult ESL learners from cultures where other intelligences-such
as interpersonal or musical-are highly valued may find the MI classroom
a productive learning environment.
Broadly speaking, teachers have developed four ways of using MI theory
in the classroom.
1. As a tool to help students develop a better understanding and appreciation
of their own strengths and learning preferences. Christison (1999a) has
developed an inventory to identify the preferred intelligences of adult
English language learners. Learners are asked to respond to six statements
about each of eight intelligences. An excerpt follows.
MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES INVENTORY FOR ESL/EFL ADULTS
Directions: Rate each statement 2, 1, or 0. 2 means you strongly agree.
1 means you are in the middle. 0 means you disagree. Total the points for
each intelligence. Compare your scores on the different intelligences.
--- 1. I like to read books, magazines, or newspapers.
--- 2. I often write notes and letters to my friends and family.
--- 3. I like to talk to people at parties.
--- 4. I like to tell jokes.
--- 5. I like to talk to my friends on the phone.
--- 6. I like to talk about things I read.
--- 1. I can do arithmetic easily in my head.
--- 2. I am good at doing a budget.
--- 3. I am good at chess, checkers, or number games.
--- 4. I am good at solving problems.
--- 5. I like to analyze things.
--- 6. I like to organize things.
--- 7. I like crossword puzzles.
--- 1. I like houseplants.
--- 2. I have or would like to have a pet.
--- 3. I know the names of many different flowers.
--- 4. I know the names of many different wild animals.
--- 5. I like to hike and to be outdoors.
--- 6. I notice the trees and plants in my neighborhood.
Teachers may adapt the language and accompanying activities to suit
the needs of the language learners in their classes. Word finds, pair dictations,
dictionary and spelling work, focused listening, and grammar activities
can help learners become comfortable with the inventory language even while
they are engaged in skills work. Teachers may choose to let the students
decide whether or not to score the inventory. Other activities, such as
dialog journals, murals or bulletin boards, and small group conversations
also offer adult ESL learners opportunities to reflect on their own strengths.
The ideas and information that come from these activities can inform learner
needs assessment and goal-setting processes.
2. As a tool to develop a better understanding of learners' intelligences.
An understanding of MI theory broadens teachers' awareness of their students'
knowledge and skills and enables them to look at each student from the
perspective of strengths and potential. Teachers also become aware of the
different ways in which students may demonstrate their understanding of
material. MI theory provides a structured way of understanding and addressing
the diversity that ESL instructors often encounter in the classroom (Christison,
1996). On a given topic or skill, teachers can brainstorm with learners
a list of activities to practice. For instance, beginners can learn about
consumerism by making and labeling collages of merchandise, reading newspaper
ads, developing dialogues, or going on a scavenger hunt to the store. In
this way, each learner can acquire language skills by employing individual
strengths or preferences.
3. As a guide to provide a greater variety of ways for students to learn
and to demonstrate their learning. Identification of personal strengths
can make students more receptive to nontraditional learning activities
and can give students a successful experience that builds their confidence
as learners. As learners and teachers work together, intelligences can
emerge naturally through partner interviews, preference grids (I can...,
I like to...), and needs assessments. However, some teachers have encountered
at least initial resistance to this process of describing intelligences
among students whose cultural or educational backgrounds emphasize more
traditional modes of teaching and learning (Costanzo & Paxton, 1999).
In this case, teachers may choose to focus learners' attention on the language
they are practicing through these activities rather than on the theory.
(More challenges to using MI-based activities in the adult ESL classroom
are described in the upcoming study on MI from the National Center for
the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy [Viens & Kallenbach, in press].)
Teachers have noted other positive effects of applying MI theory. A
curriculum informed by MI theory provides a way of handling differing language
skill levels within one class-a very common situation in adult ESL classes
(Costanzo & Paxton, 1999). When multiple activities are available,
more students can find ways to participate and take advantage of language
acquisition opportunities. With an MI curriculum, students become aware
that different people have different strengths and that each person has
a substantive contribution to make (Kallenbach, 1999). This fits in well
with project-based learning where students in a group can divide tasks
based on individual strengths. For example, one learner might feel confident
about planning, another might prefer to do the writing, and a third might
feel able to present the project to the whole class.
4. As a guide to develop lesson plans that address the full range of
learner needs. An MI-informed reading lesson may begin with typical prereading
activities (reviewing earlier material, predicting what will happen next),
followed by silent reading or reading aloud with discussion of vocabulary
and text meaning. Learners can then complete a project, individually or
in groups, to demonstrate their understanding of the text. The teacher
offers a choice of projects, such as descriptive writing, map drawing,
illustration, creation of a dialogue or skit, making a timeline, song writing,
and retelling. The objective is not to teach to specific intelligences
or to correlate intelligences with specific activities, but rather to allow
learners to employ their preferred ways of processing and communicating
new information (Coustan & Rocka, 1999).
Teachers using this type of lesson report that students become more
engaged in and enthusiastic about reading; the students gain greater understanding
of material when they express what they have read in ways that are comfortable
for them; and their reading strategies improve as reading becomes a tool
for completion of projects they are interested in (Coustan & Rocka,
Teachers who use MI theory to inform their curriculum development find
that they gain a deeper understanding of students' learning preferences
and a greater appreciation of their strengths. Students are likely to become
more engaged in learning as they use learning modes that match their intelligence
strengths. In addition, students' regular reflection on their learning
broadens their definitions of effective and acceptable teaching and learning
practices. Students' increased engagement and success in learning stimulates
teachers to raise their expectations, initiating a powerful expectation-response
cycle that can lead to greater achievement levels for all.
Christison, M.A. (1996). Teaching and learning languages through multiple
intelligences. "TESOL Journal, 6" (1), 10-14.
Christison, M.A. (1999a). "A guidebook for applying multiple intelligences
theory in the ESL/EFL classroom." Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Center.
Christison, M.A. (1999b). Multiple intelligences. "ESL Magazine, 2"
Costanzo, M., & Paxton, D. (1999). Multiple assessments for multiple
intelligences. "Focus on Basics, 3" (A), 24-27.
Coustan, T., & Rocka, L. (1999). Putting theory into practice. "Focus
on Basics, 3" (A), 21-24.
Gardner, H. (1993). "Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences
(10th anniversary ed.)." New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (1999). Are there additional intelligences? The case for
naturalist, spiritual, and existential intelligences. In J. Kane (Ed.),
"Education, information and transformation" (pp. 111-131). Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kallenbach, S. (1999). Emerging themes in adult multiple intelligences
research. "Focus on Basics, 3" (A), 16-20.
Viens, J., & Kallenbach, S. (in press). "MI grows up: Multiple intelligences
in adult education sourcebook." Boston: National Center for the Study of
Adult Learning and Literacy.