TAs Can Motivate Students in Remedial Class

Hikaru Hirata

For this issue’s Teaching Assistance, a graduate student explains why she took a calculated risk in planning lessons for students in a remedial class. Taking advice offered by her supervisor and an administrator with a grain of salt, Hikaru Hirata felt her lessons not only inspired under-achieving students, but also met their diverse needs, prevented them from dropping-out, and helped improve their attendance rates.

When I got a job offer to teach in a remedial class of English at a private university, I was hesitant to accept it. The remedial education program was initially constructed for freshmen students as a single semester pathway into Mathematics, English, and Japanese language courses. These three subjects were identified by career development administrators as essential skills required in most careers in Japan. McMurray (2017, p. 28) noted that “Retired teachers and business professionals are sometimes recruited on a part-time contract basis as Remedial Teachers (RT).” However, I am a first-year graduate student majoring in American literature. The class I was offered not only included freshmen, but also sophomores and seniors majoring in economics, social, or intercultural studies. I was asked to teach 30 underperforming students for about an hour at individual desks in one room equipped with a whiteboard. I worried about how I could organize such a diverse class.

The introduction of a grade point average system (GPA) in 2014 served to focus administrators and teachers on addressing the issue of under-performing students more urgently than they had in the past. No longer could students graduate despite infrequent attendance or poor grades. A non-credit bearing remedial program was opened in 2015 for students whose low English skills cause them to fall behind students in mainstream classes, as well as students who want to repeat course materials they couldn’t grasp.

A review of the application forms that students had completed for the program in 2018 revealed myriad reasons for enrolling. The stated long-term goals for improving English were even more varied. During PTA interviews several teachers and parents jointly recommended students enroll when GPA scores dropped below 1.5 or attendance fell below 60% in mainstream courses. This meant my remedial class would be a mix of slow learners and non-attenders. Some students wanted to improve their GPA and TOEFL scores to allow them to study abroad at an English-speaking university. Others said they wanted to improve their chances in tests and interviews during job hunting.

According to Starfire (1999), although there is a difference between laziness and slow learning, all students need to feel successful, whether they are seen as lazy or just cannot learn quickly. With motivation and self-esteem in mind, Pope (1975) suggested, “Each learner must feel respected, dignified and successful as he attempts to learn the English language” (p. 140). Convinced by these readings that it is possible to motivate 30 students in a remedial English class, I decided to accept the part-time job and salary for one semester. I remained puzzled, however, as to what to teach and how to motivate each of the students during the next 10 weeks.

Seeking support from a professor, I was advised not to teach difficult grammar forms, not to make students feel uneasy, and not to make students dislike studying English. I was informed that students in remedial classes find speaking in English to be difficult, and they believe that they are better writers than speakers. When I consulted with a remedial class administrator, I was advised against conducting activities and playing games. The advice I received contradicted Starfire’s (1999) findings that it was beneficial to give remedial students a review game to play, claiming that she wanted them to see that learning can be fun too. She suggested using the board game Snakes and Ladders with five students tossing a die to move a marker each time they answered a review question. Students then consulted their mainstream class textbooks to help them answer these questions.

I made a lesson plan for my first class based on my supervisor’s advice; however, I included an English activity because my teaching beliefs differ from the beliefs of the administrator. Even though I had been warned that some students do not like this kind of activity in mainstream classes, it became a kind of challenge for me to try. Twenty students showed up on the first day. When I asked them to play an English word chain game, their positive attitude surprised me. So, I divided the students into two groups and had them form a line. I was the time-keeper. Students competed to see how many words they could chain together. To start, I wrote “English” on the blackboard. Students chained words such as “high” or “have” to the final letter, and words such as “egg” or “easy” to the first letter. In this way, they pushed themselves to recall vocabulary they had already acquired in mainstream classes. They cooperatively chained words with other students. I was glad to see this situation. One student said, “I found how English can be fun in this class.”

To describe other ways in which I tried to motivate students in my remedial class, I will introduce two students. One of the students, let’s call him Taisei, came to the class already equipped with good communication skills. He loves traveling, so he planned to study abroad. In our second class, I did a level check of his grammar. For example, I asked him to fill in these blanks, “A: Where (     ) your sister live? B: She lives in Fukuoka.” and “Tokyo is (      ) crowded (        ) Kagoshima.” I recommended he study grammar with me in Japan, so that he could spend a more fulfilling time studying abroad in Canada. If he were to go abroad without basic grammatical skills, I reasoned that he would waste his time. I scheduled time for a speaking activity with Taisei and two classmates using a board game requiring the past simple grammar form to talk about a variety of everyday topics. I prepared a game board and dice. In the class, I divided the students into groups of three and gave each group a game board and die. Students took turns to roll the die and move their counter along the board. When a student landed on a square, they had to talk about the topic using the past simple tense. I observed Taisei speaking in English positively and taking a leadership role in his group. When a member of his group stammered for a moment, he tried to help the member. Taking note of his aptitude in the speaking activity, I introduced him to additional sentences that can be used in everyday conversation. I also asked him to memorize easy sentences through drilling or chanting of “How are you doing?” and “How have you been?” I advised Taisei how to use English sentences depending on the situation, and confirmed that he was trying to understand each sentence and taking notes in his journal. He seemed eager to tryout one-point English conversation sentences.

Taisei’s classmate, Yuta attended this class to improve his basic skills and prepare for job hunting. A quiet student, he attended the class almost every week. His shyness meant he had few opportunities to use his English skills. That’s why he had gradually fallen behind in his English ability. When he finished the first term, he told me “I started to remember what I learned at junior high school. I got the hang of it again.” He voluntarily returned to the remedial class during the second semester, but he surprised me with a big change in the purpose for his study. Yuta was asked to teach English to his younger cousin. He realized that he had to learn English more than ever if he was going to teach other people.

The RT lowers the standards set for normal classes to help students learn at a slow, comfortable pace. Iwazume (2016) claimed that as an RT, “I am not pushing students to study faster and faster, I am trying to pull them along gently in tandem with their mainstream professors” (p. 29). She found that the low-achieving students in her class tended to confide their concerns to her first rather than to classmates or teachers in the faster moving “gateway courses” of the regular curriculum.

At the outset, I wasn’t supposed to set too high a goal for students in the remedial English class. However, by doing activities and playing games based on what students had picked up in mainstream classes I observed eight of them come away with a real sense of accomplishment. Remedial classes encouraged these students to study English again.

In summary, remedial classes should encourage and motivate students. Having students repeat a class can be discouraging. In many cases, instead of empowering students or putting them in charge of their learning, repeating lessons may actually make the students feel more like failures than before.

In remedial classes it is essential for students to clearly define the reasons they want to study. Remedial classes should neither contain new information nor new textbooks; they are for clear and simple review material only. No final examination should be given. To afford each student enough personal attention, limit class size to 15. Bring an ample supply of spare handouts and mainstream course textbooks. Class should consist of a variety of activities and games, conducted at a slower pace, for at most one hour. Since these students find English difficult, it demands their intense concentration; therefore their attention spans tend to be short. To reduce absenteeism, the once-a-week classes should not be held on the weekends and should be scheduled at the end of regularly scheduled mainstream lessons.

I can now confidently counter suggestions from advisors who presume that students don’t like English-speaking activities. And contrary to what administrators felt, I have found that students can learn from playing games. Students need opportunities to use English and feel a sense of accomplishment. RTs can help students outside the mainstream curriculum. Remedial education can help students who are underprepared for college-level classes.


Iwazume, N. (2016). Teaching assistance: Extracurricular English instructors on campus. The Language Teacher, 40(5), 28–29.

McMurray, D. (2017). Teaching Assistants. The Language Teacher, 41(4), 30–32.

Pope, L. (1975). Teaching remedial reading. New Jersey: Book-Lab.

Starfire, V. (1999). What to do with Non-Performing Students: The Remedial Make-up Class. The Language Teacher, 23(7) 25–29.