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Premium, Select, and Institutional Plus Member Book (Apr 2003)

Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing

by Thomas Armstrong

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Literacy, Multiple Intelligences, and the Brain

Most of us are familiar with the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, a tale that comes to us from ancient India. In this story, a king presented an elephant to a number of blind men in his community and asked each to say what he thought it was. The first man touched the side of the beast and answered, “A wall.“ The second walked up and felt a leg, and replied, “No, this is a pillar.“ A third man encountered the tail and cried out, “This is certainly not a wall nor a pillar! It's a rope!“ A fourth man latched on to an ear and exclaimed: “You're all wrong! It's a piece of cloth!“ And the men began arguing and fighting among themselves about who was really right.

Recently, I discovered another related story that isn't nearly as well known. It's entitled “The Blind Educators and the Literacy Lion.“ In this story (which has rather fuzzier origins), a king asks several blind educators in his village to examine a new beast that has come into his possession and to tell him all about it. The first educator goes up to touch the Literacy Lion, and then runs back to the king shouting: “This beast is made up of whole words! Yes, all sorts of words, like the and captain and sure and poultry and wizard and tens of thousands more!“ Then the king signaled for the second educator to go up to the Literacy Lion, which she did, and after some time she returned to the king saying: “This animal isn't made of whole words! It's made up of sounds! All kinds of sounds! Sounds like ‘thhhh’ and ‘buh’ and ‘ahhhhh’ and ‘ayyyyy’ and ‘juh’ and many more. In fact, I counted all the sounds, and there are exactly 44!“ A third educator was sent to examine the beast, and he returned and exclaimed: “This creature isn't made up of sounds or whole words. It's constructed out of stories, and fables, and songs, and chants, and poems, and storybooks, and Big Books, and board books, and novels, and plays, and whole libraries full of living, exciting tales, and lots more besides!“ Finally, a fourth educator was sent, and she came back saying: “They're all wrong! This beast is made up of whole cultures, and people crying out for freedom and power, and it's about understanding who we are and what we're capable of, and how each of us can speak, and read, and write with our own voices, and in this way contribute to the good of all.“ And with this final assessment, the educators proceeded to dispute heatedly among themselves.

By now, you will have probably recognized that this story is a thinly disguised attempt to describe the history of literacy acquisition and the teaching of reading and writing over the past several decades in the United States and elsewhere. Beginning in 1955, with the publication of Rudolf Flesch's best-selling book Why Johnny Can't Read(Flesch, 1986), a series of disputes erupted in educational circles regarding the best way to teach literacy. This controversy is sometimes referred to as “The Reading Wars.“ In this dispute, each combatant claims that his or her particular approach, whether it be phonics, basal readers, whole language, critical literacy, or any of a number of other methods, represents the single best way to teach reading, writing, or both to our students. A lot of ink has been spilled in the course of this battle, and despite rounds and rounds of negotiations, the war continues to this day.

I think it's time to put an end to these reading wars. The Literacy Lion is a powerful, complex, and mysterious beast. Each description that we receive of it“from educators, psychologists, brain researchers, and other professionals“can only enrich our knowledge of what this powerful being is really made of, and why we want so much for our students to have contact with it. In this book, I would like to attempt an integration of the diverse range of perspectives on reading and writing“a sort of peace conference on literacy“so that we might forge ahead as educators united, rather than divided, on this important educational issue. In synthesizing many of the ideas, programs, methods, brain research studies, and other contributions to literacy acquisition, I use Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (MI theory) as an organizing framework. I want to make it clear from the outset that I do not propose that multiple intelligences now be considered thebest approach to literacy acquisition. I do not wish to become a new combatant in the reading wars. Rather, I want to use MI theory as a tool to help make sense of the many different approaches to reading and writing that are out there, showing how these different methods complement rather than contradict each other. I wish to employ MI theory, then, as a metacognitive strategy for organizing and making sense of the research findings, programs, and strategies that are already out there and being used in the teaching of reading and writing. As we will see, there is a place for each of the many perspectives that have been offered over the past half-century regarding the best way to help students“from early childhood to late adulthood“acquire the skills of literacy.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: A Brief Primer

Because I am using multiple intelligences as the unifying element in this peace conference on literacy, I would like to provide a short introduction for the reader who may be unacquainted with the theory. Those who wish to explore the theory in more depth may refer to a number of other resources: Armstrong, 1999a, 2000a, 2000b; Campbell, Campbell, & Dickinson, 1995; Gardner, 1983, 1993, 1999; Hoerr, 2000; Lazear, 1999; Nelson, 1998. The theory of multiple intelligences was developed by Harvard professor Howard Gardner in the early 1980s (Gardner, 1983). Gardner argues that traditional ideas about intelligence employed in educational and psychological circles for almost a hundred years require significant reform. In particular, he suggests that the concept of a “pure“ intelligence that can be measured by a single IQ score is seriously flawed. Instead, Gardner points out that intelligence isn't a singular phenomenon, but rather a plurality of capacities. Drawing on his own observations and those of other scholars from several different disciplines, including anthropology, developmental psychology, animal physiology, brain research, cognitive science, and biographies of exceptional individuals, Gardner concluded that there were at least seven different types of intelligences that everyone seems to possess to a greater or lesser degree. As the theory evolved, he added an eighth intelligence to this list (Gardner, 1993). Each intelligence represents a set of capacities that are brought to bear upon two major focuses: the solving of problems, and the fashioning of significant cultural products. These eight intelligences are

  1. Linguistic Intelligence. The understanding of the phonology, syntax, and semantics of language, and its pragmatic uses to convince others of a course of action, help one to remember information, explain or communicate knowledge, or reflect upon language itself. Examples include the storyteller, orator, poet, editor, and novelist.
  2. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence. The ability to control one's bodily motions and the capacity to handle objects skillfully. Examples of those proficient in this intelligence include the actor, mime, craftsperson, athlete, dancer, and sculptor.
  3. Spatial Intelligence. The ability to perceive the visual world accurately, to perform transformations and modifications upon one's initial perceptions, and to be able to re-create aspects of one's visual experience (even in the absence of the relevant physical stimuli). Examples include the architect, mapmaker, surveyor, inventor, and graphic artist.
  4. Musical Intelligence. The ability to understand and express components of music, including melodic and rhythmic patterns, through figural or intuitive means (the natural musician) or through formal analytic means (the professional musician). Examples include the composer, pianist, percussionist, music critic, and singer.
  5. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence. The understanding and use of logical structures, including patterns and relationships, and statements and propositions, through experimentation, quantification, conceptualization, and classification. Examples include the scientist, mathematician, logician, computer programmer, and statistician.
  6. Intrapersonal Intelligence. The ability to access one's own emotional life through awareness of inner moods, intentions, motivations, potentials, temperaments, and desires, and the capacity to symbolize these inner experiences, and to apply these understandings to help one live one's life. Examples include the psychotherapist, entrepreneur, creative artist, and shaman.
  7. Interpersonal Intelligence. The ability to notice and make distinctions among other individuals with respect to moods, temperaments, motivations, intentions, and to use this information in pragmatic ways, such as to persuade, influence, manipulate, mediate, or counsel individuals or groups of individuals toward some purpose. Examples include the union organizer, teacher, therapist, administrator, and political leader.
  8. Naturalist Intelligence. The capacity to recognize and classify the numerous species of flora and fauna in one's environment (as well as natural phenomena such as mountains and clouds), and the ability to care for, tame, or interact subtly with living creatures, or with whole ecosystems. Examples include the zoologist, biologist, veterinarian, forest ranger, and hunter.

Of primary importance in the construction of MI theory is Gardner's use of a set of eight criteria that need to be met in order for each intelligence to qualify for inclusion on his list (Gardner, 1983). What makes MI theory stand out from a number of other theories of learning and intelligence is the existence of this set of criteria, and the fact that it encompasses a widely diverse range of disciplines“all pointing to the relative autonomy of these eight intelligences. The criteria are

  • Susceptibility to Encoding in a Symbol System. Gardner suggests that each intelligence has its own unique set of symbol systems. For example, linguistic intelligence includes a wide range of languages such as English, French, Spanish, and Russian, while logical-mathematical intelligence employs number systems and computer languages, and interpersonal intelligence draws upon a diverse group of gestures, facial expressions, and postures to represent moods, intentions, and ideas.
  • Support from Psychometric Findings. Gardner indicates that if one looks at the subtest scores from standard intelligence tests, or at the quantitative measures for logical, linguistic, artistic, social, emotional, or kinesthetic aptitude tests, evidence suggests a general lack of correlation between scores in different intelligence areas, thus pointing to the relative independence of each intelligence.
  • An Evolutionary History and Evolutionary Plausibility. A look at the archeological evidence suggests that each of the eight intelligences appears to have been used during prehistoric times by early homo sapiens, and most likely were used at even earlier stages of evolution, as evidenced by the presence of these intelligences in other members of the animal kingdom (e.g., musical intelligence in birds, spatial intelligence in bees, interpersonal intelligence in ants).
  • A Distinctive Developmental History and a Definable Set of Expert “End-State“ Performances. Each of the eight intelligences provides numerous examples of high-level achievement in individuals who are at the peak of their discipline (for example, Marie Curie, Georgia O'Keeffe, Virginia Woolf, Martin Luther King, Jr., Auguste Rodin, Jane Goodall, Sigmund Freud, Kiri Te Kanawa), and there appear to be specific stages that individuals go through in traveling along the path from a novice to a master in each domain.
  • The Existence of Savants, Prodigies, and Other Exceptional Individuals. For each intelligence, there are individuals who have incredible abilities in that particular intelligence and yet appear to be highly underdeveloped in some or most of the other intelligences. For example, the literature includes examples of “savants“ who can calculate rapidly in their minds and yet have subnormal IQ scores, those who read difficult text without understanding it (hyperlexia), and five-year-old children who can draw at a gifted adult level, but have significant social impairments such as autism.
  • An Identifiable Core Operation or Set of Operations. Each intelligence has a definable set of operations that can be enumerated with specificity and taught to another person. For example, bodily-kinesthetic operations may include the ability to imitate the physical movements of others or the capacity to master established fine-motor routines for building a structure. For musical intelligence, operations might involve sensitivity to pitch or the ability to discriminate among different rhythmic patterns.
  • Support from Experimental Psychological Tasks.Psychological studies of transfer, where subjects are taught a skill and then are expected to automatically transfer that learning to a different domain, show that abilities generally don't transfer from one intelligence to another. For example, becoming a better reader will not necessarily make one a better math student, or learning to kick a soccer ball will not necessarily make it easier to paint a picture or relate well to another person. This general lack of transfer suggests the relative autonomy of each of the eight intelligences.
  • Potential Isolation by Brain Damage. Disease or injury to certain areas of the brain appears to selectively impair specific intelligences while leaving the others intact. For example, an injury to Broca's area in the left frontal lobe of the brain can devastate a person's ability to speak or read, but that individual will often be able to paint, hum a tune, skate, or smile at another person because these functions are associated with unimpaired areas of the brain. However, an individual with damage to the right temporal lobe may lose the ability to carry a tune while retaining the ability to speak, read, and write. Roughly speaking, here are major areas of the brain that are associated with each of the eight intelligences:
    • Linguistic: left temporal and frontal lobes
    • Logical-mathematical: left frontal and right parietal lobes
    • Spatial: occipital and parietal regions (especially of right hemisphere)
    • Bodily-kinesthetic: cerebellum, basal ganglia, motor cortex
    • Musical: right temporal lobe
    • Interpersonal: frontal lobes, temporal lobe (especially right hemisphere), limbic system
    • Intrapersonal: frontal lobes, parietal lobes, limbic system
    • Naturalist: left parietal lobe (important for discriminating “living“ from “nonliving things“)

This last criterion showing how the eight intelligences correspond to different areas of the brain is of particular importance for us as we next look at the experience of reading and writing, and how these activities are mediated by neurological events in the brain.

Literacy Is a Whole-Brain Activity

It seems clear from the above survey of the eight intelligences that reading and writing are linguistic activities. The particular symbols used in reading and writing“in this case, the 26 letters of the English alphabet“are limited to this one intelligence. In addition, we tend to associate the activities of poets, playwrights, novelists, hyperlexic savants, and bookworms almost exclusively with linguistic intelligence. Certain distinctive brain structures, particularly in the left hemisphere for most people, are particularly important when it comes to the processing of the phonological, semantic, and syntactic aspects of words. In sum, there are strong reasons for literacy to be regarded as part and parcel of linguistic intelligence. Having said this, however, I'd like to argue that when we look at how the brain processes the actual experience of reading and writing, we can begin to see how all of the eight intelligences have important parts to play.

To illustrate, let's examine what happens in the brain during the simple act of speaking a printed word (see Figure 1.1). First the human eye must see the word on the page. This sensation is first registered by the primary visual area in the occipital lobe (the seat of spatial intelligence). After the word is seen in the primary visual area, it is then relayed to the angular gyrus (a “gyrus“ is the crest of a single convolution in the neocortex), at the junction of the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes of the brain. I like to think of the angular gyrus as the region of the brain that most reflects the idea of multiple intelligences' relationship to literacy because it is here, at the crossroads of three different lobes, that many different types of information are brought together or associated with each other in creating linguistic information, including visual-spatial configurations, musical and oral sounds, and even physical sensations. Recent research has suggested that individuals who have difficulty reading and writing often have significant disruption in this particular area of the brain (Horwitz, Rumsey, & Donohue, 1998). In the nearby region of Wernicke's area all of this information is synthesized in such a way that it can be understood in a meaningful way (i.e., semantically encoded). From there, it is transmitted via a bundle of nerve fibers called the arcuate fasciculus to Broca's area in the lower left frontal lobe, where it is logically encoded in a grammatical system, and a program is prepared to evoke articulation, and then supplied to the motor cortex, which in turn drives the muscles of the lips, tongue, and larynx to speak the actual word (Geschwind, 1979). Here then we see the involvement of several intelligences, including linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic, in this simple act of speaking a printed word.

Figure 1.1. Speaking a Written Word

While the above scenario took place in the left hemisphere of the brain, there is increasing evidence that reading and writing involve significant use of the right hemisphere as well. Studies suggest, for example, that the right hemisphere is activated when subjects read words that are anxiety-provoking or emotionally charged (Van Strien, Stolk, & Zuiker, 1995). The right hemisphere also appears to be involved in semantic decisions during the reading and writing process, especially when the reader is in the initial stages of deciding among a range of possible words (Coney & Evans, 2000). In addition, the right hemisphere appears to take information that has been initially processed by the left hemisphere and uses it in the course of comprehending text (Coney, 1998). There are also subcortical structures involved in the process of reading, including the cerebellum, which has been previously linked to bodily-kinesthetic functions, and also areas of the limbic system that become activated while experiencing emotions during the process of reading (Fulbright et al., 1999; Simpson, Snyder, Gusnard, & Raichle, 2001). Unfortunately, we are still in the infancy of brain scan research regarding reading and writing activities, and too many studies are still based on a very limited context of literacy“for example, reading single words in an artificial laboratory setting rather than reading whole texts in a natural home or school setting (for recent criticisms of brain scan research and literacy, see Coles, 1998, 2000; Ferguson, 2002).

However, some of these newer brain studies (which will be reviewed in greater detail throughout the book) accord well with our understanding of the actual experiences involved in reading and writing. The person who reads and writes is doing far more than simply linguistically encoding data. She is also looking at the visual configuration of the letters. Thus, spatial intelligence“the intelligence of pictures and images“must first be brought to bear on the printed letters. Then she must match these visual images with sounds. In doing this, she must draw upon her wealth of knowledge concerning musical sounds (musical intelligence), nature sounds (naturalist intelligence), and the sounds of words (linguistic intelligence) in order to make the proper letter-sound correspondences. In addition, she brings in information from her body (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence) to ground these visual and auditory sensations into a structure of meaning. As we will see in Chapter 2, the physical body is integral to processing the shapes of letters and the meaning of words and text. Once she begins to organize the information into grammatical units, she draws upon deep intuitive syntactic structures that employ logical-mathematical transformations (see Chapter 5 for more information about this process). As she reads meaningful information, she may visualize what she reads (spatial intelligence), experience herself actively engaged in a physical way in the text (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence), have emotional reactions to the material (intrapersonal intelligence), attempt to guess what the author or characters intend or believe (interpersonal intelligence), and think critically and logically about what she is reading (logical-mathematical intelligence). She may decide to take action as a result of her reading and writing, either in a physical way (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence) or perhaps within some larger social context (interpersonal intelligence). In each of these cases, our reader is bringing to bear different intelligences upon the multilayered processes of reading and writing.

When we begin to think of literacy as involving all of the intelligences it becomes easier to understand the variety of ways in which literacy itself is learned and practiced. We know from the literature on individuals who have difficulty reading and writing that their difficulties are not all the same. Some students have particular problems with the visual configurations of letters (sometimes this is referred to as dyseidetic dyslexia), while others encounter difficulties primarily with the sounds of language (dysphonetic dyslexia). Other students can decode individual words but encounter obstacles in comprehending whole text. Some individuals have problems primarily with the underlying grammatical-logical structures of sentences. Others have difficulties visualizing what they have read, or understanding what the author's intent may be.

By the same token, people actually learn to read in many different ways. For decades, many people learned to read with the old “look-say“ Dick and Jane method. But it took a writer like Rudolf Flesch to point out that many students were being left out of this approach. As he indicated, some students need to learn to read by mastering the sounds or phonemes of language and their correspondences to the visual letters. Other students, however, have had difficulty with a decontextualized phonetic approach to reading and seem to do better with a method that emphasized real literature and natural contexts for reading and writing. Still other students thrive when other features are included in a reading and writing program, for example, involvement of the body, the use of the hands, a focus on color, an emphasis on the unique social milieu of the learner, the insertion of a particular component of great interest to the student such as animals, sports, or superheroes, or factors related to a student's individual learning style (see for example, Carbo, Dunn, & Dunn, 1986). As MIT linguist Steven Pinker points out, “it would not be surprising if language subcenters are idiosyncratically tangled or scattered over the cortex“ (Pinker, 1994, p. 315). Such wide variations among learners suggest that instead of pitting one literacy method against another we need to discover how a student's unique brain is wired for reading and writing and then use a range of approaches that matches his or her “literacy style.“ It is for such a purpose that this book has been written.

While I will cite many studies that have focused on the breakdown of the capacity to read or write in individuals who have been described as “dyslexic,“ “learning disabled,“ or “reading disabled,“ the overall emphasis of the book is not on what's “wrong,“ but rather what's rightwith a student's reading and writing capacities. In fact, when I use labels such as “LD,“ “ADHD,“ and the like, I generally put them in quotation marks or otherwise qualify them, because of my belief that they are labels externally imposed within a specific social milieu (for more information, see Armstrong, 1997, 2000a).

Several years ago, a study on reading published in the New England Journal of Medicine received significant national attention by suggesting that individuals described as dyslexic were not part of a special species of learner separate from normal readers, but rather, that they represented the low end of a continuum of reading ability found in the rest of the population (Shaywitz, et al., 1992). I'd like to suggest that this continuum stretches from the nonreader all the way up to Shakespeare, and that every one of us falls somewhere along this spectrum. Instead of taking a “half-empty glass“ perspective in thinking that everybody has a certain amount of reading disability in them, I prefer to take the “half-full glass“ point of view in suggesting that even the student who has just written her first words is already on the road to writing like Shakespeare. And the fact is, there are multiple pathways to the highest peaks of literacy as we will see in the next eight chapters of this book. The biggest issue for educators to resolve regarding the Literacy Lion shouldn't be whether whole language or phonics is the best way to teach reading, or whether to focus on punctuation or creativity in writing, or whether we should teach students spelling skills or let them invent their own words. The biggest question is whether we as educators are going to teach literacy skills in such a way that the words lie dead there on the page for so many students, or, conversely, whether we're going to take positive steps toward the ultimate goal of making the words come alive for all students. I invite you to choose the second option, and, for the rest of this book join me in an adventure through the multiple intelligences of reading and writing.

For Further Study

  • Research the history of “The Reading Wars“ (and related “Writing Wars“ and “Spelling Wars“) since the 1950s, examining points of difference and areas of agreement.
  • Stay current with the latest brain research in the fields of reading and writing, paying special attention to studies that link the right hemisphere and the limbic system and other subcortical areas of the brain to literacy (hint: use MEDLINE on the Internet as a key data source).
  • Survey the literature on the applications of multiple intelligences theory to literacy. Read Howard Gardner's book Frames of Mindand other books on multiple intelligences, and make your own connections between MI theory and literacy acquisition.
  • Examine the reading, writing, and spelling programs being used in your own educational setting and note which intelligences (besides linguistic) are being addressed in them.


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