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Communication Cafe helps students with language fluency

LANGUAGE GAME: Students at U of T Scarborough enjoy a stimulating exchange as part of a game while enhancing their English skills at the unique Communication Cafe. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

A novel approach to learning English as a Second Language has been established for students at the University of Toronto Scarborough – a unique language development program designed to make learning fun and stimulating.

Dramatic skits, mock networking sessions, friendly debates on world issues and other engaging activities are among the features of this fresh approach to ESL called the Communication Café.

Lecturer Dr. Elaine Khoo has sparked a wave of academic excitement among English-as-a-second-language students at U of T Scarborough through the creation of this initiative, according to participants.

The Communication Café, part of the growing English Language Development (ELD) program, began in 2005 with 42 participants. Today, it is offered three times a week for five weeks at the beginning of each semester and involves more than 600 participants who engage in fun and fulfilling one-and-a-half hour sessions of games and intellectually stimulating exchanges with their peers. Some students participate in more than one café session per week. The Communication Café has also provided opportunities for more advanced second language learners to take on leadership roles in organizing the café sessions and facilitating their peers in playing the games.

Through these pedagogical games, designed by Khoo and her team, the café helps students to improve the way they articulate their thoughts, develop critical and creative thinking as well as expand their academic vocabulary within a safe and comfortable environment. The interactive methods create a comfort level for students willing to work hard to learn, participants say.

“This is an exciting new approach to helping students for whom English is not the first language, and other universities are beginning to follow our model,” said Khoo. “For example, last semester the University of Saskatchewan successfully organized its own Communication Café and corresponding web page. I am delighted that this concept is helping more students with their language-related obstacles, enabling them to adapt better to the academic culture at the university.”

These sentiments are unmistakable in Khoo’s recent publication, Beating the Odds: Success Stories of Students Overcoming English Language Challenges, which outlines the experiences of seven students in the English language development program at U of T Scarborough.

One such student is Adam Liu, a third-year international studies co-op and political science student, who joined the Communication Café in 2005, a year after arriving in Canada.

“In my first year, I felt quite strongly that I was alienated from my tutorials, since I would always sit inconspicuously in corners for fear of showing my lack of fluency,” he said. “The Communication Café has been an effective avenue through which I have been transformed from a silent individual in tutorials into a proactive and visible participant. The sessions were always monitored by student facilitators and it’s an environment where everyone tries to help one another -- they encourage rather than judge.”

Liu said the café improved his communication skills so much that he recently served as a co-presenter with Khoo at a U of T teaching and learning symposium in front of professors from all three campuses. He was the only undergraduate presenter at the symposium – a huge feat for a student who, just one year earlier, lacked the confidence to speak up even in a small class.

The program also made a difference to Sophia Sun, an avid participant in the Communication Café when she was a third-year management co-op student. She applied for a job and was invited to do a telephone interview, and she said the enhanced oral skills which she honed at the café helped her to communicate confidently during the call, and she was hired for a co-op placement at IBM. Sun said her ability to communicate effectively, along with her ability to perform her job well, resulted in the company extending her eight-month placement by an additional four months.

Chang (Tetty) Liu, a first-year management student, described her new-found confidence after participating. “The Communication Café has made me see that communication is not as hard as I thought, and it could be just as fun as playing a game.”

“I want students to feel that they can achieve an accelerated rate of development in English and that they stand a good chance of enjoying academic success at university,” said Khoo, who is also the English Language Development Coordinator at U of T Scarborough’s writing centre.

The Communication Café is offered two levels. “The first level aims to get students to open up and feel comfortable and confidence about communicating, and encourages them to be proactive in communicating with others,” said Khoo. “The second level aims to get students to engage in critical thinking to be able to debate on issues, in preparation for upper-level seminar courses, which involve a lot of discussion.”

The program is revamped every term following feedback from participants, according to organizers. Helping to support and enhance language learning among students who have English as a second language is very satisfying, they said.

“A lot of these students have such great potential,” Khoo said. “They were top students in their countries, and they come from immigrant families who have great aspirations for them. What’s holding them back? The English language. My heart goes out to these students because I feel that they can get frustrated. They know they are really good students but when they go from semester to semester not doing well, their self-esteem drops. If we can give them an opportunity to narrow the language disadvantage gap, they will go a long way.”

Khoo will be leading a roundtable discussion called Developing Learner Autonomy through Self-Assessment on January 23 at the Office of Teaching Advancement. Please visit to register.

by Cathy Baillie and Stephanie Kang

© University of Toronto Scarborough