Barrier Games

In this seventh episode of our series, we’re going to talk about a particularly useful strategy for EAL learners called “Barrier Games”. It is very useful for developing both listening and speaking skills – it is about exchanging information about a topic between two students in a situation where one of the learners possesses information that the other one doesn’t. I explain what the activity and the process of devising it might look like using examples from Geography, Art and Maths, but it should be very easy for any teacher to use this strategy in any subject that they teach.

There are different varieties of barrier games. In this tutorial, we’re focusing on two types:

  • TYPE A – where Learner A has a diagram, a schematic or a map of some sort with information, but Learner B has just a blank copy of the same onto which information provided (orally) by Learner A has to be transferred. You can see a quick example from a Geography lesson on water cycle below – Learner A has the information on the different stages and terminology associated with the process, but Learner B clearly doesn’t. It is up to Learner A to relay this information by speaking in a way that is comprehensible to B, so that the information can be recorded accurately by B.

  • TYPE B: here, Learner A has some information that B doesn’t, but B has certain other information that A doesn’t. You can see this in the next image (this is one of resources available at the EAL Nexus website). We see, for instance that A has the definition for nucleus, but not the actual name of it, but B does have the name, but not the definition.


TYPE A: Geography

This activity is based on a material freely available from Toot Hill School at the address provided at the bottom of the image. Learner A has all the information, but I’ve changed the other map so that Learner B has just the roads, rivers and basic features on the map. Legend is available to both learners.

The learners also have additional terms and symbols available to them – as you can see on the right in the image under the Tourist Information heading. As this lesson is about map reading, the learners have also been provided with a compass of geographical directions. This is unchanged from the original resource.

In order to complete this task, information provided by Learner A has to be very specific – for example, Learner A would have to say, “There is a Picnic Site in the southern part of square 0742” to describe the item’s precise location. Therefore, aside from reading square numbers from the map itself, our learners need the names of the items to be recorded on the map and compass directions. However,, they will also need to use grammatical structures such as “There is a/an” and “There are…” as well as “IN THE western/southwestern/northern OF”. Certainly where EAL learners are involved, just telling them to exchange information is just not going to work – you need to structure the language for them.

We can use substitution tables for talking for this purpose. Here, for each item they would generate two sentences. One, as you can see, is about the location of a particular item to be recorded (the number of a square), and the following one about where within that square it is located – it’s natural to use our compass directions for this. Of course, the same directions could later be used to talk about the geographical relation of one item to another, e.g. “The wood is north of the picnic site.” but here we’re focusing on recording individual map elements only.

Substitution tables can certainly be used for writing, but, here, we really mean to use them for listening/speaking purposes only. Language learning relies on repeating structures and lexis; I am certain it is very apparent to you that the structure “there is” and “there are”, and others in these tables, would be repeated and rehearsed a number of times in this process.  You will also have noticed that the articles or their lack are made to look more important here (large red font). That’s the actual linguistic objective of the task. I want to see if the learners understand that in order to use “a” or “an” you need to be dealing with a singular noun. If you look closely, no other option beside “a” is actually possible using this table – there is no word beginning with a vowel in the third column of the first table and none of the words are plural, so using “There are” is also impossible. We know that, but we’re not going to tell our students this at first as that’s what we want to assess.

In the second table, we want to drive our EAL learners’ understanding that now we can change the indefinite “a” noun, such as in “a church” to the definite “the church” since we’re now dealing with the specific church. Many Eastern European languages do not use such articles at all – so it is imperative to teach them to EAL learners. What better way to do so than in the context of your mainstream subject?

Type B: Arts

Here we’ve got an example from the subject of Arts, looking at different artistic painting styles. This, of course, would be done once a few lessons on the topic were delivered!

We can see how information is missing from table A – for instance, the name Realism and Surrealism is not there, but it is available in B.

It is very important that the headings here are actual questions that the students can ask. If, instead of the question “What period does this style cover?”, you would just write “Period” or “Time”, your EAL learners would be stuck, unable to ask the question. You might want to teach the students, before this activity commences, how to answer the questions using fuller sentences (at least with subjects and verbs) so they can see how the subject and the verb in the question can be used as a starter for an answer. The question “Who are the representative artists for this style?” could be answered with “The representative artists for this style are Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh.

Following the completion of the previous task, you might want to think about how your learners might produce some writing. This is post-barrier game, but it’s crucial to think how to get your learners to not just obtain the knowledge, but develop their English language writing skills whilst using this newly-found knowledge.

At this point, your learners might be able to write short sentences about the grid they’d just completed – but these would be short sentences and likely grammatically and linguistically uninspiring. We can extend that. Look at the example sentence and the graph based on the information about Idealism from the grid.

In essence, we can teach our learners how to turn these 4 sentences – 1a+1b+2+3 – into one complex sentence. “Idealism (1a) covered the 1400s-1700s (1b)” can easily be split by “represented by…” (3) and then linked to “depicted its subject as…” (2) with the connective “and”. Indeed, the description and structuring sentences about all the other styles in the grid are possible using this approach. It’s all, of course, about teaching academic language, having high expectations of our learners and not shying away from challenging them. All it takes is modelling it for your learners first and subsequently getting them to do some independent work. I don’t think that your other native English speaking learners will suffer for it, either!

Another option for producing sentences, although likely not as complex as the ones in the image just above, is using graphic organisers. Here, we’ve got our five different artistic styles. Each has 3 subbranches / boxes: these relate to the information from the grid: period in history, depiction of its subjects and representative artists. This information can be transferred from the original grid.

But how would our learners learn to say sentences or write sentences using this information? Well, if you think of verbs functioning as connectives between subjects and objects, writing one of the verbs/phrases or their synonyms (covered, depicted, is represented by) on the actual branch lines will allow you to create sentences as you can see here: “Idealism is represented by Hyacinthe Rigaud and Raphael.” You can ask your learners if they can identify which verb is used for which question. The actual form of verbs we’re dealing with here allow for some additional teaching: all take the –ed suffix, but “represented” is not a verb (it functions here as a past participle, an element within the passive voice structure) whilst the other two are . This might be confusing to EAL learners – it would be good idea to address this and explain it.

Type B: Maths

Of course, Type B barrier games can be used with just paragraphs of text or even smaller sentences. Here I’ve got a very simple and short example from the subject of Maths. We can see a word problem here about Sara, who collects coins. As you can see, I have removed the verb “got” for Learner A and “lost” for Learner B. They’d need to come together to ask questions such as “What did she do?” or “What happened to her?” to find out the missing verb. Only then will they be able to write the actual equation to solve the problem – they need each other to find the solution.

You could, of course, remove different numbers from word problem tasks if, for instance, you’re dealing with learners very new to English who are still learning their numbers in English.

Verbs in mathematical word problems are actually quite interesting. Often, they are regular (general) verbs that express mathematical operations. Whilst, yes, as we can see on the left above, typical words to use for plus and minus are “to add” or “to subtract”, how often do you think that “to get” or “to receive” actually means addition, but “to spend” is about subtraction? “To save” money means having more money, but if something “costs” a sum, it means one has less money rather than more. Of course, it depends on the context of the sentence and the word problem itself. “To sell”, for instance, could mean both + and – : If your word problem asks about how many items were sold, clearly we’d be dealing with adding sales or profits from the sales. However, if “selling”  is about how many items less there are in stock as a result of the sales, then you’re dealing with a minus!

Nonetheless, we can teach how mathematical operations can be expressed not only through vocabulary items typically associated with the subject of maths, but by general verbs used to express the same meaning. These can easily become the focus of our barrier games in Maths.

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