The Importance of Nonverbal Intelligence

China, Guangxi Province, girl (6-9) looking at globe in class

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Nonverbal intelligence is the ability to analyze information and solve problems using visual, or hands-on reasoning. In other words, it is the ability to make sense of and act on the world without necessarily using words.

What Are Nonverbal Skills?

Nonverbal tasks may involve concepts such as:

  • Concrete or abstract ideas
  • Internalized language-based reasoning
  • Internalized reasoning without language

Nonverbal tasks involve skills like:

  • Performing visual analogies
  • Recognizing causal relationships in pictured situations
  • Recognizing visual sequences and remembering them
  • Understanding the meaning of visual information and recognizing relationships between visual concepts

Examples of nonverbal intelligence in action include:

  • Anticipating and/or planning for outcomes (for example, hearing that it will snow and therefore making sure that shovels and ice scrapers are available)
  • Conceiving of and implementing a two- or three-dimensional design such as creating a drawing, a sculpture, a shed, a piece of furniture, etc.
  • Creating and/or following a map
  • Solving a puzzle
  • Using a diagram or blueprint to build a two- or three-dimensional structure or to set up a system (for example, a sound system, television system, etc.)

Nonverbal Intelligence as Common Sense

In school, nonverbal intelligence enables students to analyze and solve complex problems without relying upon or being limited by language abilities. Many mathematical concepts, physics problems, computer science tasks, and science problems require strong reasoning skills.

Outside of school, nonverbal intelligence may be described as "common sense." While a person with common sense may or may not score high on a typical IQ test, it is common sense that gets us through our days.

A person who scores high on a typical IQ test may not have the basic nonverbal skills to, for example, get to the grocery store before the food runs out or put together a build-it-yourself piece of furniture.

Nonverbal intelligence allows us to think through, plan for, and implement projects. We also use nonverbal intelligence to organize and manage our time and our belongings.

Assessing Nonverbal Intelligence

Nonverbal intelligence is typically assessed in extended IQ tests. It's important, however, to distinguish between traditional IQ tests and IQ tests which specifically assess nonverbal intelligence.

IQ tests including the TONI-4, Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (CTONI), Universal Nonverbal Intelligence Test-Second Edition (UNIT2), and Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM) assess the basic intelligence of people with speech and language challenges (people with autism, aphasia, and other disabilities). The TONI-4, in particular, is a language-free test, so children taking the test answer with gestures like pointing, nodding, or blinking.

These assessments are important because they remove the language barriers that may otherwise prevent parents, teachers, and physicians from accurately evaluating a student's true intellectual abilities.

Strengthening Nonverbal Intelligence

Nonverbal intelligence may be improved by working with hands-on tasks like picture puzzles, blocks, and building toys, find-a-word puzzles, mazes, and erector sets. Additionally, a wide range of support systems is available to help enhance nonverbal abilities. These include tools like alarms, time planners and organizers, and occupational therapy.

1 Source
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  1. Mungkhetklang C, Crewther SG, Bavin EL, Goharpey N, Parsons C. Comparison of measures of ability in adolescents with intellectual disabilityFront Psychol. 2016;0.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.