Using Barrier Activities to Promote Active Learning for EAL Learners


I am always amazed at the effort we sometimes feel we need to undertake to help our learners develop their knowledge and understanding.  Too much teacher talk and lecture based teaching is not good practice for our EAL learners.  For EAL learners to develop they need to play an active role in their learning. Active learning helps EAL learners retain more information, be more engaged, more motivated, and most importantly have more fun.  Barrier activities are one way to promote active learning as well as developing EAL learners speaking and listening skills.

Barrier activities tend to include some sort of information gap that learners have to communicate with each other to complete. When planning for barrier activities, the language structures you want your learners to internalise, the content you want them to learn or they vocabulary that essential for them to develop their understanding should be at the forefront of your mind.

Any kind of barrier activity creates ample opportunities for learners to be active participants in the learning process.  Barrier activities involve both problem solving and communication skills.  Learners have to communicate with each other and this is an enjoyable, fun and worthwhile experience for them in the classroom.  Communication can take the form of both non verbal and verbal depending on the proficiency of your EAL learners.  For example, I have seen beginners complete barrier activities by mostly using non verbal gestures.  However, I do believe that we should be promoting verbal responses to support development and understanding.  There are also opportunities for learners with the same first language to perform barrier activities in that language especially if it helps to learn content.

Barrier activities should be meaningful and linked to the subject or curriculum area.   Learners will have opportunities to use language structures that develop their understanding and knowledge.  Barrier activities allow learners to use new language structures with a partner or small group in a non threatening environment rather than the pressure cooker environment that can sometimes be whole class.

Just last week I used a barrier activity in the classroom to help my learners develop their descriptive writing skills. It was fun to see the way they collaborated to build their knowledge of descriptive writing. The activity I created involved them completing a table that had missing words and phrases for descriptive writing. They had to communicate with each other to complete the table, then work collaboratively to create their own descriptive sentences using the words and phrases from their table. The activity I used is here Descriptive Writing Barrier Activity The class had a range of EAL learners from beginners to more advanced.

Another type of barrier activity that I find extremely helpful in developing mastery of newly acquired vocabulary is a barrier crossword.  Barrier crosswords involve learners using clarifying, classifying, describing, explaining, and rewording skills to complete a crossword where learner A has the words that go down and learner B has the words that go across.  More information on barrier crosswords is on my Classroom Strategies page at this link Barrier Crosswords. I would highly recommend this website for creating barrier crosswords.  Barrier Crossword Maker.

I have also used barrier activities in Maths for this activity on Describing Quadrilaterals.  Again, this barrier activity made use of both verbal and non verbal clues to learn the key words for describing different quadrilaterals.  I had a range of proficiencies in the classroom and all learners enhanced their understanding of the vocabulary needed to describe a quadrilateral.

Specialised Cells is an example of how I used a barrier activity to develop understanding of the functions of specialised cells in Science.  Learners had to communicate with one another to complete a table.  Due to the vast amount of vocabulary that needs to be learnt, I believe that barrier activities are very helpful for internalising new science term and are a much better use of time than just copying key words and definitions out of a Science textbook.

For barrier activities to be effective, identify the language structures that you want your learners to use. It is worthwhile displaying language structures as the structures act as a scaffold that models the language that should be used in communication.

I also find it helpful to model how to successfully complete the activity especially with beginners so that they have a clear image in their minds of what they need to do.

Barrier activities reduce the need for lecture based, teacher led lessons and are highly effective activities that develop control over language, enhance curriculum / lesson understanding as well as vocabulary knowledge. They are extremely helpful for EAL learners, so why not give them a try?

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