• Adult Education

Teaching to the Student: Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Intellect, so the old wisdom goes, is a singular quality of excellence. Residing in the human brain, it is bestowed by luck or nature on a privileged few. These individuals are destined to be leaders within our society and achieve greatness and riches. Therefore, so the theory goes, those who have more are simply superior to those who have less.

This idea, in my opinion, is so much bunk.

And I am not alone. In the 1980s, psychologist Howard Gardner introduced his theory of multiple intelligences, which was then a revolutionary new way of regarding the human brain's capacities. Those of my readers involved in education for some time will no doubt be familiar with this idea. It is old-hat in teacher education these days. However, for those of us who are making our first foray into the world of education, it is a vital idea for us to understand. And for those already familiar, this article includes some basic ideas both about how to teach to these strengths in our students.

The 8 areas of intelligence defined by Gardner are Mathematical/Logical, Linguistic/Verbal, Musical, Spatial, Kinesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalistic. (To these, a 9th is sometimes added, of which there are several options, including Spiritual, Existential, or Pedagogical.) By determining which areas our students are gifted in, we can craft lesson plans in our teaching and tutoring that play to those strengths. Doing so can be as simple as having a brief conversation about their interests and the things they themselves feel they are good at.


As the name implies, people who are strong in mathematical/logical intelligence are good with numbers. People with this strength will tell you that they liked math in school. Simultaneously, they may also be the avid mystery reader who always finds the culprit through a careful application of logic and reasoning. These thinkers are often "good" at school because of the emphasis our educational system places on STEM careers.

To play to the strengths of people with high Mathematical/Logical intelligence, it is often a good idea to offer them a problem to solve. One possible way to help them practice their English is to offer a list of words (for example, simplify, ease, improve, complicate, facilitate) and have them pick out the word that doesn't belong. Another possible exercise is to have them write out directions in English for a simple task, for example, making a sandwich or tying your shoes. Encourage them to be as detailed and specific as possible.


This is another pretty obvious one. People with this strength are good with words. These are our natural language learners who seem to pick up English so quickly that it is almost unfair. They loved Language Arts classes in school. These students are the ones that like to speak up to answer questions. They will tell you that they love reading, writing, or telling stories.

The best way to craft instruction for these learners is to use language as much as possible. They will often benefit the most from simple conversation practice. Another potential exercise that plays to their strengths is to have them tell you a story, record it, then have them render the same story in writing. They will also benefit from doing things like translating song lyrics, poetry, or short scenes from a telenovela into English.


This one is pretty straightforward as well. These learners love music. They love to sing along to songs on the radio and often have good voices, even without formal training. At the same time, they may be professional or amateur musicians with years of experience on a given instrument. (Or instruments!) Those that have had the opportunity for formal music education may even be able to tell you the name of a given note just by hearing it played once. And some will even be able to sing any note you can name!

Use music to help these students learn. Set lessons to songs. They will have much better musical taste than me, but as an example, I made this simple song set to the melody of Do Re Me, from The Sound of Music:

Hello a word that means Hola

Goodbye a word for Adios

Pencil which means Un Lapiz

Escribe las palabras en the Paper

To Learn is the same as Aprender

The teacher is the same as El Professor

En el clase we come each day To Learn

And it all starts with the word Hello

Not my best work, but you get the idea. Having your students set vocabulary lists to music can help them memorize the information. At the same time, making the words fit the music requires correct pronunciation and diction.


Spatial intelligence is a little less obvious. It represents both the ability to move comfortably in three-dimensional space without getting lost, the ability to picture physical spaces and physical representations in your head, and the ability to render what is seen in graphics or pictures. These learners are your artists. They are the students who can follow maps, and charts, and graphic stories with ease.

People with high spatial intelligence are often what gets called "visual learners." Debates over the validity of learning styles aside, visual learners are learners who gather information best with their eyes. They often love to draw, so make use of that. Have them create a graphic story in English or use comic books or graphic novels as learning material. The pictures give great hints for unfamiliar words. Moreover, studies show that reading graphic fiction requires us to use both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, which is excellent for building and maintaining mental plasticity.


Kinesthetic means of or related to movement. These learners learn by doing. They are your athletes and craftspeople. They love to use their hands to create beautiful things and often get a kick out of playing soccer. Kinesthetic learners are also the fidgety students, the ones who keep having to get up and move around.

Use this tendency to your advantage. Have them use the physical movement they are so good at to aid in learning. For example, an old hat spelling trick is to have your students use their entire arm as a giant pencil and spell out the words they are learning in the air. Adult students may find this a little silly, but it works! This was actually how I learned to spell many words, and I still sometimes write in the air when I can't think how to spell a tricky word. Another option for these learners post-pandemic will be to take a walk together and have them use English nouns to name the things they see!


These learners are your Chatty Kathys and amateur (or professional) psychologists. Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand and interpret others' behavior and treat other people with compassion that can only come from understanding. They are often attracted to people-centered professions like being a receptionist or a waitress. Still, many are also interested in the helping professions like nurses or doctors. You will know them because they are people-oriented and interested in what is going on with the people around them.

People with Interpersonal Intelligence learn best when you utilize their ability to talk openly and understand others. They are another group that benefits enormously from conversation practice. Another useful exercise with these learners is reading plays or watching TV shows in English and then summarizing what happened for you. They also thrive in a classroom discussion environment.


What? Didn't we just cover this? Not quite! Intrapersonal intelligence is the capacity to look inward. These learners are your Philosophers. They tend to be quiet, reserved, introverted, and, most importantly, introspective. Intrapersonal intelligence is a high level of understanding of one's own mental and emotional states.

There is one keyword for working with these learners: Journaling. They thrive on introspection and love to investigate the inner workings of their own mind. Having them keep an English language Journal and bringing in one entry a week to discuss further will keep them interested in English writing. In terms of reading assignments, inspirational, thought-of-the-day type books will be most interesting for them.


Root word: Nature! This is a form of intelligence that wasn't included in Gardner's original theory, but that is widely embraced amongst this theory's proponents today. Naturalistic intelligence is the ability to understand and work with the natural world. Typical careers for people with this form of intelligence are gardener, biologist, veterinarian or vet tech, and Park Ranger. These learners will have a capacity for classifying plants and animals and are often detail-oriented, noticing the small differences between two things.

In terms of teaching to their strengths, remember the assignment about taking a walk and discussing what you see? Same thing, only this time make it a walk in the park or (for those dwelling nearer the outskirts of the city) a nature preserve. Unfortunately, that will have to wait for a full roll-out of the vaccine. So, for now, try having them read nature articles or books about, or set in, the natural world.

The truly significant thing about Gardner's theory is the social implication I hinted at in the beginning. Tending to treat one kind of intelligence as the exclusive hallmark all intelligence is a way of promoting the interests of those with these particular types of intelligence. Judge a Capybara by its ability to climb a tree, and he will always think that the monkey deserves to have all the bananas.

That's why I think it is vital to find the gifts our students bring to our classes and teach to those strengths. Teaching students not just English or Basic Education, but teaching them that they too are intelligent is a gift we give to them and the entire world. It is an investment in the future of mankind.

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