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Teaching ESL Students Using the 9 Multiple Intelligences

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 9/11/2012

Using the theory of multiple intelligences to teach ESL or English as a second language is a natural fit. If you use the English language learner's personal strengths, you can quickly and easily reach them with critical information, structure and grammar, while instilling communication skills.

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    With the growing focus on globalization, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) has grown in popularity by leaps and bounds, especially so during the last two decades.

    English has become the lingua franca of world trade, commerce, science, technology and industry. This makes it a prime target for school systems, educational institutions, online and offline learning platforms and a growing host of other organizations. Not only are ESL and EFL extensively taught worldwide, but the methods by which they are taught are likewise numerous and varied.

    Several distinctive language teaching and learning methods have emerged as being the most common methods that have influenced ESL and TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) practices. One of the foremost of these is based on the theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1985) linking Multiple Intelligences and ESL.

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    The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

    Howard Gardner The theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) as published by Prof. Howard Gardner of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, has taken the educational community by storm during the last decade or so.

    Why? Because of its highly effective manner and level of effectiveness in achieving results in virtually all types of learners in a broad range of subjects and themes, including the way we teach English as a second language.

    The theory of MI provides that there are nine areas of human intellectual development which we all have in greater or lesser degrees individually. Briefly the nine areas of the multiple intelligences according to Gardner’s theory are:

    • Visual – Spatial intelligence by means of which learners primarily process information by sight and in three dimensions
    • Verbal – Linguistic intelligence
    • Logical – Mathematical intelligence
    • Bodily – Kinesthetic intelligence
    • Musical – Rhythmic intelligence
    • Intra-Personal intelligence
    • Inter-Peronal Intelligence
    • Naturalist intelligence
    • Spiritual intelligence

    You can find more detailed information on eight of these here.

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    Using MI Theory When Teaching

    So how can we incorporate Multiple Intellegince theory into our ESL teaching? We can do so initially by adapting our classroom methodology to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of our ESL learners both collectively and individually. This means that each element of ESL taught in class should be presented in two or three different approaches based on the preferred multiple intelligence learning styles and strengths of your students.

    For example, if you want to teach a grammar element, a language function, or English verbs in context, it should be presented in a manner which appeals to Visual – Spatial, Verbal – Linguistic and Musical – Rhythmic intelligence learners or whatever other combination represents the majority of your classroom of ESL learners.

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    Preparing Intelligence-Based Lessons

    Multiple intelligences theory can be integrated into the teaching of ESL by preparing specific intelligence-based lessons for the language taught. For example, if you are introducing telling the time, for musical – rhythmic intelligence learners use a song or musical clip related to the theme like “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Halley and the Comets, an oldie but goodie that still works well.

    For visual – spatial learners, an actual clock or some student-made clocks will be effective pieces of realia. For bodily – kinesthetic learners, you might have them position themselves in a circle at the numbers of a clock to tell the time with arms, feet, legs and body placements. Logical – mathematical intelligence learners might do best in creating a sundial. Inter-personal intelligence learners can create and practice oral dialogues in asking for and telling the time.

    The idea is to adapt the theme to suit the intelligences of three or four intelligence-based types of learners in a class group. This should quite effectively cover the multiple intelligences of all the learners in even the largest ESL student groups.


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