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Using the Theory of Multiple Intelligences in the Preschool and Elementary Spanish Classroom

For the greater part of the twentieth century, most psychologists and educators believed that a student’s intelligence could be measured in a standard test known as the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ test. This test consists of taking individuals out of their natural learning environment, asking them to do isolated tasks that they have never done before, and then assessing their performance in this setting.

In the 1980s, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner challenged this definition of intelligence and the validity of the IQ test. Gardner suggested that intelligence could more accurately be measured in the context of one’s individual life experiences. Based on this theory, Gardner created a means of mapping human abilities into seven categories, or intelligences. This was later expanded to nine intelligences. In Gardner’s explanation of the intelligences, he broadens the traditional definition of intelligence to encompass nine distinct areas of intelligence, most of which are not reflected in the traditional IQ test. In doing so, he recognizes the fact that while an individual may not perform well on a traditional IQ test, this does not necessarily mean that this person is not intelligent in another manner that was not reflected in the test.

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has proven to be a useful tool for educators. Recognizing the presence of these intelligences in students helps a teacher focus on a student’s strengths; further, teaching with these intelligences in mind can provide students with a much richer, more effective educational experience.

The lessons presented in the Sonrisas Spanish School curricula speak to Gardner’s intelligences by incorporating activities that inform each. Designing lessons for the language class that target the intelligences helps set up each child for success. The diversity of activities not only serves to keep students from getting bored; it also ensures that each student, at one time or another, is engaged with the concepts presented in the lesson.

Following is an explanation of each of the nine intelligences and how each is targeted in the Sonrisas Preschool and Elementary Spanish lessons. We outline them briefly in order to place them within the context of the Sonrisas classroom; however, we strongly encourage all parents and teachers to learn more about the theory of multiple intelligences. There are fascinating, in-depth books available on the subject. In particular, we recommend Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom by Thomas Armstrong (ASCD, 1994).

Next week we will go into more detail about how to target the multiple intelligences in the elementary Spanish classroom.


Linguistic intelligence is the capacity to use words, both written and spoken, effectively. Obviously, this is the intelligence that we strive to develop in our Spanish classes. According to Thomas Armstrong in Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, development of this intelligence explodes in early childhood. This, in part, explains children’s natural propensity for learning a foreign language. Children with strong linguistic intelligence have particular sensitivities to the sounds, structure, meaning, and function of words and language. Reading, writing, telling and hearing stories, and playing word games in Spanish are activities that we incorporate into our lessons which directly make use of students’ linguistic intelligence. These activities develop and strengthen this intelligence and provide students with skills that they will employ for the rest of their lives.


Bodily/kinesthetic intelligence is a strong ability to use one’s whole body to express ideas. Perhaps every teacher has had the delightful experience of watching a student with a well-developed kinesthetic intelligence. In a traditional classroom, this student is often the one who appears to be bouncing off the walls, fidgety, having a difficult time staying seated in a chair, and when asked to sit, often taps his hands and feet compulsively. Rather than walk, he prefers to skip, run, or hop from place to place. Students with a well-developed bodily/kinesthetic intelligence enjoy dancing, gesturing, building, touching, and marching. These students often excel in tactile crafts and drama. In our experience in the classroom, we have been amazed at how quickly a kinesthetically intelligent student can memorize a Spanish song or poem, or grasp a Spanish concept, if the song or concept is accompanied by gesture, clapping, marching, or dancing. Furthermore, we have watched these students come to an almost miraculous focus when they are engaged in activities such as sculpting, building, or manipulating objects.


Musical intelligence is best expressed as a sensitivity to rhythm and as the capacity to perceive, discriminate, transform, and express musical forms. Of the intelligences, it is the earliest to develop. Any parent who has sung lullabies to his or her infant and watched the infant’s response has witnessed this budding musical intelligence. Children with a strong musical intelligence love singing and listening to music. They quickly learn melodies, possess strong singing voices, often tap their hands and feet, and move rhythmically. Music has proven to be an indispensable tool in second-language acquisition in early childhood and has, in many ways, become the foundation for teaching Spanish in our curriculum. We use music to introduce the phonetics of Spanish; through rhyme and melody, students not only begin to pronounce Spanish words correctly, but also link words and phrases together meaningfully. By teaching our students music from different Spanish cultures, we are allowing them to use their musical intelligence as a window into the cultures represented.


Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to perceive and make distinctions between the moods, intentions, motivations, and feelings of others. Developed in the first three years of life, this intelligence is best expressed as a remarkable sensitivity to facial expressions, voice, and gesture. There is a direct and crucial relationship between the development of interpersonal intelligence and the attachment and bonding that a child and parent experience. As children grow, they yearn for relationships with others; children with well-developed interpersonal intelligence often enjoy leading, organizing, relating, manipulating, socializing, teaching other children, and engaging in group activities. Our experience has shown that students who excel in these areas become natural models for other students, and that based on the group dynamics of a class, students often learn much more quickly from each other than from the teacher. Given the strong impact of this intelligence on a classroom setting, it becomes evident that students tend to learn a second language more efficiently in a comfortable social setting rather than with videos, audio CDs, or computer programs. By engaging students in group activities, we capitalize on a child’s natural desire for bonding and relationship with others in order to teach language.


Intrapersonal intelligence manifests as self-knowledge and the ability to act adaptively on the basis of inner awareness, including a capacity for self-discipline, self-understanding, and self-esteem. Like interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence is developed in the first three years of life. Children with a well-developed intrapersonal intelligence enjoy quiet time and dreaming, and do well when left alone to engage in self-directed activities. In our experience, students with strong intrapersonal intelligences love art time and crave such self-directed activities. In the Sonrisas classroom, students enjoy independent, hands-on projects that give them a manipulative related to the vocabulary and concepts of that lesson.


Spatial intelligence is the ability to perceive the visual-spatial world accurately. This intelligence is expressed through designing, drawing, and visualizing. Students who excel in this intelligence exhibit sensitivity to color, line, shape, form, space, and the relationships among them. They often have vivid imaginations that they employ during visual presentations, well-illustrated stories, art activities, and free drawing. In our experience in the Sonrisas classroom, we have seen students with strong spatial intelligences build Spanish skills effectively during games and activities that involve visual aids, such as puppets, drawings, and stories, in which they glean meaning with very little prior knowledge of the vocabulary.


Mathematical intelligence is the capacity to use numbers effectively and to reason well. It manifests itself through sensitivity to logical patterns and relationships. Although this intelligence does not peak until early adulthood, the relationship between language and mathematical intelligence is worth noting. In early childhood, for instance, this relationship can be expressed in Spanish class through rhythm and rhyme. In addition, students can build vocabulary and conceptual skills in the context of mathematical processes, such as counting, sequencing, and geometry. Theoretically, language follows predictable patterns—it is a code that, once deciphered, makes communication
possible. Students who have highly developed mathematical intelligence are often the ones to discover these patterns; they begin to conjugate verbs and to use modifiers in their language. Although in our experience this is rarely the case in preschool and early elementary age children, developing the inverse of this relationship can be an effective tool in the language classroom: By learning a second language using the intelligences that are developing naturally in early childhood, young students set a foundation for strong mathematical skills later in life.


Naturalist intelligence is the ability to discriminate among living things as well as a sensitivity to other features of the natural world. In the Spanish language classroom, students who identify strongly with their naturalist intelligence enjoy studying about the flora and fauna, the climate, and the geography of Spanish-speaking countries. A study of Costa Rica, for example, is enriched by learning about the plants and animals of the tropical rainforests. And part of what makes the study of Argentina so fun for students is looking at a country in the southern hemisphere, similar to the United States in distance from the equator, and understanding what this means in terms of the seasons, plants, and animals of Argentina. When we take imaginary trips to each of the countries in this curriculum, we talk about the location of each country in relation to the United States as well as the geographic borders. Are they accessible by land or sea or both? How far away are these countries? When it is daytime in the United States, is it daytime or nighttime in the country we are studying? These are all concepts that address the naturalist intelligence.


Existential intelligence is the propensity to pose and ponder questions about life, death, and ultimate realities. Although the cultural study of each country in this curriculum doesn’t directly deal with existential matters, many of the cultural traditions of the countries we study here are directly related to the religious and indigenous beliefs of the countries’ inhabitants. Las Posadas and el Día de los Muertos are both cultural experiences that meld Catholic traditions with indigenous beliefs. La gauchada is an indigenous Argentine custom. In these lessons, we talk about the study of language as a window into the soul of the culture. When students learn about and experience cultural traditions rooted in the religious rituals of the people, they are developing their existential intelligence.

Sonrisas Spanish School creates, publishes and sells preschool and elementary Spanish curriculum and Spanish music for children. The Sonrisas curriculum can be used to teach preschool, elementary and home school Spanish. Currently, our Spanish language curriculum for kids is being used nationwide to teach Spanish to children.

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