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How games can change your life

Lubaba Khan (centre) attended her first Communication Café in third year. She is working towards certification in the ELDC's Facilitation Training Certificate (FTC) program, which trains enthusiastic students in the Communication Café smodel so they can run the workshops themselves. (Photo by Ken Jones)

For the first two years of her undergraduate degree, UTSC student Lubaba Khan kept quiet. She was naturally shy, someone who would immediately clam up when she had to present to a group. A double-major in French and political science who is fluent in four languages, Lubaba hardly ever spoke in her tutorials.

Then, in third year, Lubaba decided to make a change. She attended her first Communication Café, a workshop series run by the English Language Development Centre (ELDC) at UTSC.

"I can still remember it," says Khan. "It was on logical fallacy, finding errors in reasoning through games. I had so much fun that I kept going back. Soon I was talking more in my tutorials and my grades had improved."

The Communication Café is a flagship program of the ELDC that builds participants' confidence, fluency and facility with academic English through learning activities that are disguised as games. The program is the brainchild of Dr. Elaine Khoo, coordinator of the ELDC and a senior lecturer with the Centre for Teaching and Learning at UTSC.

"When I first had this idea, I was trying to find ways to break down the language barriers many students face," says Khoo. "To do that I knew we would need to help with the emotional baggage, too. Performance or social anxiety can make people feel lost, alienated and even marginalized, no matter what their actual facility with language."

The solution was to develop learning activities with strong game elements.

"The games work because students enjoy them," says Khoo. "They forget they are inhibited by language or emotions or stigma and they get carried away by the game."

The ELDC instructional team has now developed ten Communication Cafés that run several times every semester, each on a different theme. Attendance has skyrocketed since the program began in 2005, and Khoo's concept has spread to the St. George campus and has been experimented with by other universities.

"Communication Cafés are not just building academic skills," says Khoo. "They are building confidence and fluency in various academic and social contexts."

While Lubaba Khan loves the games, she says the secret of the ELDC's success is the people.

"The Cafes are popular because of the team behind it. The Communication Café instructor and peer co-facilitators are friendly and supportive and they really help you out.

Two years ago Khan saw a call for submissions for the annual UTSC Humanities Conference. Back then, she was tempted but too intimidated to try. Last year, with a number of Communication Cafés under her belt, she saw the poster again and decided to go for it.

With the help and guidance of ELDC lecturer, Heather-Lynne Meacock, Khan wrote a paper on endangered languages and submitted it to the conference. Lo and behold, her paper was accepted, and a few months later she was presenting it to the entire English faculty.

Khan has now completed all ten cafes and has decided to take her involvement to another level. She is working towards certification in the ELDC's Facilitation Training Certificate (FTC) program, which trains enthusiastic students in the Communication Café smodel so they can run the workshops themselves.

"I guess you could say I'm a believer," says Khan. "The Communication Café was definitely a defining moment in my life."




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