What is Nonverbal Intelligence and Why Does It Matter?

Nonverbal intelligence is the ability to plan, build, and anticipate outcomes

China, Guangxi Province, girl (6-9) looking at globe in class
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What Is Nonverbal Intelligence?

Nonverbal intelligence it 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 to describe, plan, or implement action. Nonverbal tasks may involve concepts such as:

  • Internalized reasoning without language.

Nonverbal tasks involve skills such as:

  • The ability to recognize visual sequences and remember them;
  • Understanding the meaning of visual information and recognizing relationships between visual concepts;
  • Performing visual analogies; and
  • Recognition of causal relationships in pictured situations.

Examples of nonverbal intelligence in action include --

  • solving a puzzle
  • using a diagram or blueprint to build a two or three dimensional structure or to set up a system (a sound system, television system, etc.)
  • conceiving of and implementing a two or three dimensional design such as a drawing, a sculpture, a shed, a piece of furniture, a piece of clothing, etc.
  • creating and/or following a map
  • anticipating and/or planning for outcomes (e.g., hearing that it will snow and therefore making sure that shovels and ice scrapers are easily available)

Why Is Nonverbal Intelligence Important?

In school, nonverbal intelligence is important because it 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. In addition, it is nonverbal intelligence that allows us to think through, plan for, and implement projects -- and we use nonverbal intelligence to organize and manage our time and our belongings.

Outside of school, nonverbal intelligence may otherwise 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 food runs out, put together a build-it-yourself piece of furniture, or figure out how to organize papers in a notebook.

How Is Nonverbal Intelligence Assessed?

Nonverbal intelligence is typically assessed in extended IQ tests.  It's important, however, to distinguish between IQ tests which are nonverbal and IQ tests which assess nonverbal intelligence. Nonverbal IQ tests such as the TONI are intended to assess the basic intelligence of people with speech and language challenges (people with autism, aphasia, and other disabilities). Tests which assess nonverbal intelligence are actually intended to discover an individual's ability to manage nonverbal tasks.

Is It Possible to Improve Nonverbal Intelligence?

Nonverbal intelligence may be improved by working with hands-on tasks, occupational therapy, puzzles, blocks and building toys, find-a-word puzzles, mazes, and erector sets. There are also a wide range of supports available to help enhance nonverbal abilities. These range from time planners and alarms to active 1:1 training.

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