Using barrier games for the teaching of positional language, demonstration of understanding & categorisation

A barrier game requires two pupils to sit at a table with a screen/ barrier between them. The barrier can be anything that inhibits them from seeing each other’s work (a folder, bag, books, or sit back to back etc.) Each pupil receives the same materials and pupil A draws/ constructs/ arranges the items in front of him/her. Pupil A then describes it in detail to pupil B so he/she can construct the same. They then remove the barrier and compare their patterns/ drawing etc. There are many variations of this game and it can be adapted to suit pupils’ abilities. Groupings can vary from one to one instruction, giving instructions to a group or whole class, working in teams or pairs.

What are Barrier Games?

Barrier games encourage children to be precise in what they are saying and can be used in many ways to practice giving and receiving instructions from others. Barrier games are a powerful tool to use for oral language as pupils receive immediate feedback on how successful they were. Pupils enjoy this task and become determined to succeed with their partner.

Barrier games can be played by two learners, two pairs of learners, or an adult and a learner or pair of learners.

Barrier games can be used for:

Children working on articulation, to target his/ her sounds in spontaneous or structured speech.

Children working on fluency, to target the use of smooth speech tools in spontaneous or structured speech.

Children working on social/pragmatic skills or problem solving, as the teacher can pair pupils up in teams and have them work together.

More uses of Barrier Games are listed at the bottom of the post.

Picture Grid Cards (These can also be used for categorization)

Picture Grid Card barrier activities:

 With junior pupils I suggest to begin with picture grid barrier games and only progress to grids that are not pictured when pupils are more able and confident with positional language.

Learning to follow step by step instructions is a big part of demonstrating understanding. Begin with a one-step instruction (place the blue cube on the pig), eventually moving on two a 2-step instruction (put the blue cube on the pig and a yellow cube on the apple.) When pupils are able, eventually move onto 3-step instructions.

These grid cards tie in with the Learning Outcome of ‘Demonstration of Understanding’ as you can see from the image as you move along the milestones you are working on pupils following a ‘one step instruction’, then a ‘two step instruction’, ‘three step instructions’ etc

Another option is to discuss the categorization of the pictures on the grid cards. This ties in with the Learning Outcome of ‘categorization’.

  • Teach positional language using the picture grid cards. E.g. What is under the apple? What is beside/ next to the scarf? What is under the snake? What is between the train and the elephant?
  • Pupils follow directions and move from left to right of the barrier card. E.g. place your finger on the orange. Move down two boxes to the grapes. Move across to the tractor. Move up four boxes to the car. Move towards the right to the coat etc.

Eventually you can do this activity without mentioning the pictures in the grid. E.g. begin on the apple. Move down two boxes. Now move two boxes towards the right. Where are you now? Answer…at the hat.

Initially, effective barrier communication language needs to be modelled to pupils. Picture Grid Cards are useful for the teaching of positional language. Prior to commencing any barrier game, it would be a good idea to brainstorm with pupils regarding positional language they might use when doing these activities. Keep this language visible for pupils to use during the activities. Encourage pupils to use different orders such as place/ put and find/ locate etc.

Vocabulary such as verbs, prepositions and adjectives are essential as the goal of these games is to develop the pupils’ oral language, positional vocabulary and communication.   

ADAPTATIONS: To adapt games for pupils with learning difficulties or who are less verbal, you could remove the barrier after each instruction is carried through so pupils can check how they are doing.

To consider: Grouping or pairing EAL learners with peers who can provide good models of English

Examples of positional language (for all ages)

BehindIn front of
On top ofBelow
BesideNext to
Examples of positional language (for all ages)

Use barrier games for the development of:

Expressive and receptive language skills

Expressing and receiving one, two, three or more step instructions

Vocabulary use, such as verbs, nouns, adverbs etc.

Giving clear and concise instructions of concepts like shape, colour, size, quantity etc.

Expressive ability to ask ‘wh’ questions

Receptive ability to answer ‘wh’ questions

Questioning for clarification


Discussion and reflection

Language for Living: Tip of the Tongue contains different wipe-able barrier games such as grid cards as above (x30), picture scenes (20 x2) and ‘Spot the Difference’ cards (15 pairs)

Language for Living: A whole school programme that fits into whatever English scheme/ programme you currently use. It is hands on, ready to use by pupils. We learn by ‘doing’

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