Understanding Multiple Intelligences

“Multiple Intelligences” is the name that Howard Gardner gave to the theory of human intellect that he first published in 1983. Gardner proposed that each human being has eight distinct intelligences, each of which becomes evident in specific skills and abilities.

  • 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 ideas.
  • 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 melody.
  • 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.

Every individual has all of these intelligences to greater or lesser degrees, and every individual has a distinct combination of them. The intelligences are independent of one another in that strength or weakness in one has no direct relationship to the strength or weakness of others. In addition, each of the intelligences can be strengthened through targeted attention.

The eight intelligences are not the same as learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic). Learning styles describe how new knowledge and skills get into the brain: through the eyes, through the ears, through touch or actions. In contrast, multiple intelligences describe what the brain does with the information. Gardner outlined the differences in a blog post that was reproduced by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.


Multiple Intelligences and Language Teaching

The idea of multiple intelligences opens up a broad field of teaching options for you as a language teacher. You can invite your students to suggest learning activities that will draw on one or more of the intelligences (for example, using popular songs [musical intelligence and linguistic intelligence] to practice auditory discrimination [listening] or stress and intonation [speaking] skills). Gardner writes (Gardner / MI OASIS),

There are two chief educational implications of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences:

1) Individuation (also termed personalization) – Since each human being has her own unique configuration of intelligences, we should take that into account when teaching, mentoring or nurturing. As much as possible, we should teach individuals in ways that they can learn. And we should assess them in a way that allows them to show what they have understood and to apply their knowledge and skills in unfamiliar contexts.

2) Pluralization – Ideas, concepts, theories, skills should be taught in several different ways. Whether one is teaching the arts, sciences, history, or math, the seminal ideas should be presented in multiple ways. If you can present the art works of Michelangelo, or the laws of supply and demand, or the Pythagorean Theorem in several ways, you achieve two important goals. First of all, you reach more students, because some students learn best from reading, some from building something, some from acting out a story, etc. Second, you show what it is like to be an expert—to understand something fully, you should be able to think of it in several ways.


Multiple Intelligences Inventories

If you’d like to use a multiple intelligences inventory with your students, try the Multiple Intelligences Self-Assessment from Edutopia.

For a multiple intelligences inventory for language teachers, see Appendix A to Mary Ann Christison’s article Applying multiple intelligences theory in preservice and inservice TEFL programs.

However, be aware that Gardner himself does not support the use of such inventories. Visit the What MI Am I? page on the MI OASIS website to read his arguments against it and to see “an exercise intended to get users thinking about the intelligences and how they may function.”


Resources on Multiple Intelligences

Christison, Mary Ann. Applying multiple intelligences theory in preservice and inservice TEFL programs. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, 1999.

Christison, Mary Ann, and Deborah Kennedy. Multiple Intelligences: Theory and Practice in Adult ESL. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1999.

Edutopia Staff. Multiple intelligences: What does the research say? Edutopia, 2016.

Edutopia Staff. Multiple intelligences self-assessment.

Gardner, Howard. A beginner’s guide to the theory of multiple intelligences. MI OASIS.

Strauss, Valerie. Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles.’ The Washington Post, October 16, 2013.


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