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Language development pioneer wins prestigious university award

STUDENT EXPERIENCE AWARD: (From left) Professors Ragnar-Olaf Buchweitz and Joan Foley congratulate Dr. Elaine Khoo on her award at a ceremony held in the Great Hall of Hart House. (Photo by Jiun-Yiing Hu.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

Elaine Khoo, senior lecturer in humanities and coordinator of English Language Development (ELD) in the Centre for Teaching and Learning, is the recipient of the prestigious Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award from the University of Toronto.

The prize is presented annually to a U of T individual who has made a distinctive and lasting contribution to enhancing the quality of the student experience at the university. It award is named after Professor Emerita Joan Foley, the first female principal at the University of Toronto, who headed UTSC from 1976 to 1984. Khoo was honoured with the $1,000 prize at the annual U of T awards of excellence ceremony in May, hosted by the University of Toronto Alumni Association.

“When Professor Jill Matus, the vice-provost of students, called me to say I had won, I was absolutely speechless,” says Khoo. “I couldn’t talk for a whole minute, and she probably wondered why someone who works on language and speech was so utterly silent! After the initial surprise, I felt extremely happy with this recognition not just for me but for the whole ELD team and for all of the incredible efforts of our students.”

Considered a pioneer for her novel approach to ELD, Khoo has been praised by students and colleagues alike for her empathetic and supportive style. She founded the ELD program in 2004 and has since helped hundreds of students to enhance their English language skills. Students acquire critical thinking and academic communication skills, as well as confidence to engage actively in student life, the award citation notes. Khoo’s programs have grown to attract record numbers. Last year alone, there were 2,800 visits, including attendance in seminars, workshops, facilitator training, one-on-one sessions, and students enrolled in the various programs. Her methods have sparked a wave of academic excitement over training that enables students to learn and improve quickly in an empowering and risk-free environment.

Many students say they have improved their language skills and gone on to do public speaking or serve as language trainers themselves. Fourth-year political science and international studies student Adam Liu says -- in eloquent English -- that the ELD programs enabled him to make a “quantum leap” in terms of his language development. “By the end of my first year, I felt a strong sense of alienation and marginalization, although it was self-imposed,” says Liu, who was intimidated about speaking in class and writing assignments. “I now feel extremely happy and fortunate that at the beginning of my second year -- a critical juncture -- I became actively engaged in the ELD program. I’ve surprised and impressed my professors and secured two good co-op placements as well as co-presented with Dr. Khoo at a national conference. A very strong vocabulary is not only conducive to academic success but also opens many doors of opportunity for future success and personal development.”

Khoo’s unique methods are designed to make learning fun and stimulating. The pedagogic games incorporate dramatic skits, mock networking, friendly debates and other engaging activities. By combining the development of critical thinking, logical analysis, vocabulary, confidence and fluency to meet university-level academic needs, these games provide a fresh approach to pedagogy via the Communication Café. “When you’re playing a game, you get into it and you want to win,” Khoo laughs. “The students forget their initial inhibitions about their language ability as they focus on trying to win, individually or as a team. The excitement carries them along and they’re learning, but they’re having fun too.”

Khoo has since developed the Vocabulary Café, a program that facilitates the learning of university-level wording. Once again, the students play games that reinforce their acquisition of new vocabulary. A third new offering is the new APA Café, in which students learn to use American Psychological Association (APA) citation style for referencing in academic writing, which emphasizes the correct use of sources. In addition to the game approach, Khoo has designed customized support such as the Reading and Writing through Email (RWE) program, which has helped many students improve their writing a grade or two. For incoming students who wish to get a head start on meeting university-level academic expectations, the English Language Development Summer Learning Institutes (ELD SLI) have helped hundreds of students transition well from high school to university. In addition, students are offered Leadership training. Through the Facilitator Training Certificate program, Khoo and her team has also been training qualified ELD students as facilitators who are able to conduct café sessions for their peers.

“Many students had negative perceptions of themselves, and although they worked hard, they were afraid to speak up in class. These workshops are not graded, so people feel free to express themselves without fear of losing marks,” she says. English as a Second Language (ESL) sometimes has a stigma attached to it, she noted, so her focus on ELD with an emphasis on academic English was aimed at all students, not just non-native speakers. “My idea was to make this initiative not just for ESL students, but for anyone wanting to improve their academic English in speech and writing. It can be very hard for students who are suddenly put into a huge lecture theatre and asked to participate in class and write essays if they feel they have no support.”

Elaine Khoo “has been a tireless champion for students struggling with academic English,” says Professor Clare Hasenkampf, Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning. “She reaches out to students who feel they don’t have a voice. They not only overcome those language challenges, but also meet other students and make friends, integrating them into campus life. Elaine throws a lifeline to students struggling with language issues, and then teaches, nurtures and encourages them to dive back into university life.”

Professor Ragnar-Olaf Buchweitz, vice-principal (academic) and dean, agrees. “Dr. Elaine Khoo enables students to shine, and to achieve their true academic potential. Her work with students whose lack of fluency in English often negatively impacts their academic performance has speedy and amazing results. The major boost to self esteem and academic standing is just priceless. ”

“What I find most satisfying is seeing the students become increasingly confident and assuming greater responsibility for their own learning,” Khoo says. “To watch students who used to sit on the sidelines and say nothing now move to centre stage, participating and contributing to class discussions, and then volunteering to help other students, makes the investment of resources and energy extremely worthwhile.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough