The passive voice is an important structure for intermediate learners of English to get to grips with. Being a voice (rather than a tense), passive structures involve several aspects of grammar which learners at this level should be ready to work with. The passive can act as a useful consolidation tool to review auxiliary use, tense, use of person and plurality, as well as being applicable to a lot of language that learners may already be using without realising it.
The traditional approach to working with the passive voice involves repeated transformation exercises, where active sentences (the government passed a new law) are converted into passive sentences (a new law was passed). However, simple transformation is not enough to inform learners’ choice about how and when to apply the form in their own language.
Understanding and effective use of the passive voice involves a conscious choice in the part of the user - the passive makes a statement about how we see an action, or how we want to communicate it: do we want to assign intention or responsibility to the person doing the action? Do we want to say who that person is/was? Do we care who did it? All of these shades of meaning are covered by this one structure, so how can we go beyond simple transformation on paper, and help learners to develop a flexibility and intentional use of this important grammar point?
1) Offer transformation choices
Rather than offering students a simple active/passive structure choice, get them thinking about when active or passive structures might be more appropriate. Changing the type of subject used in a sentence might affect this choice, as might the type of verb used (not all verbs can appear in the passive).
Here is an example task to adapt and use:
Look at the following sentences and transform any that you feel would communicate an appropriate idea in the passive voice:
I remember having the flu when I was young
He broke that window!
We all visited grandpa in hospital
The President signed an agreement with France
The government accused the opposition of lying
The police arrested three men for theft
In each case, why is or isn’t a passive form appropriate?
How does the message change in the examples which can change to the passive?
2) Focus on frequent usage
Another choice with the passive involves the tense of the ‘be’ auxiliary. All passive forms use a form of ‘be’, but it must be transformed into the appropriate tense for the message being communicated.
A good way to practice tense use in the passive is to focus on actions which typically appear in the passive, and use them as responses to a time-focused prompt. Here is another task that you can adapt for your students:
Listen to the sentences that your teacher says. Build a passive voice response from the chunks of language below:
Where is my pizza? I ordered it 20 minutes ago!
What was that huge noise I heard earlier?
Look! That house is a different colour today!
Does Mike still work here?
What is that smell?
Will Donald Trump be president again?
The milk... ...am / is / are... ...demolished.
I can’t believe he... ...was / were... ...cooked right now.
No, he... ...have been / has been... ...fired
The house next door... ...is being / was being... ...painted bright blue!
It... ...left out of the fridge
For students who don’t get the prompt first time, instruct them to listen for the time phrases and tenses used in the prompts, and these will guide them to choose the correct forms.
3) Engage students with authentic examples
Another way to show the choice between active and passive language is to compare these forms’ usage in real-world texts. Authentic materials can be challenging, but by focusing specifically on the grammar point you are teaching, a lot of the extra vocabulary and other high-level language becomes less important. After some time studying passive grammar, students will be able to recognise ‘be’ auxiliaries and past participles in a text, whether they understand it in full or not.
Bring a newspaper into class (use an online newspaper or scan pages and share them for online classes), and distribute the different sections to groups of three or four students: the sports section to one group, national news to another, political news to another, celebrity gossip to another…
Ask each group to count the number of passive forms they can find in stories of approximately the same length. In feedback, it should be clear that passive forms are used much more widely in political and national news, as compared to celebrity or sports news. Why? Ask the students to think about the language choice questions we looked at earlier in this article:
Do we want to assign intention or responsibility to the person doing the action?
Do we want to say who that person is/was?
Do we care who did it?
There are different reasons for using / avoiding the passive in sports, legal, political and celebrity news, so these points can be discussed to bring out the different functions of the passive.
Next, ask the learners to write the subject, the passive verb phrase and the agent (if there is one mentioned) of any sentences they are struggling with, and organise some examples to the whiteboard once a range of sentences has been underlined. Call on other groups to comment on the underlying meaning of the passive in each case, again, based on the three functional questions above.
Awareness-raising tasks such as this can help to increase learner choice with the forms that they work with, ultimately giving them more confidence and control over the new forms that they learn and incorporate into their own language resource.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.