Ideas for Teaching the Passive Voice

The passive in English can be formed in a number of ways the most common of which consists of a form of the verb ‘be’ in conjunction with a past participle e.g. 'He was arrested.' Despite Microsoft Word's apparent dislike for it, the passive is actually a very useful feature of the English language. It allows us to talk about things that have occurred when we don't know the agent as in 'I was robbed.' It also permits the focus of a sentence to be on the action rather than the 'doer' as in 'The castle was built in 1213.' rather than 'King John built the castle in 1213.'

What do our students need to know about the passive? Well, obviously the different forms, and the reasons for using it. In addition to this, they need to know how to add the 'doer' without taking the focus away from the action, e.g. 'The castle was built in 1213, by King John.'

Contrasting and transformation exercises are the tools used by most course books and EFL teachers when teaching the passive. So, having taught the form of the passive, we might ask our students to consider the following sentences:

The first commercially successful graphical user interface was developed in the late seventies, by Apple.

Apple developed the first commercially successful graphical user interface in the late seventies.

We could then ask the students a series of leading questions such as: Which sentence is likely to be from an article about Apple? Which is likely to be from an article about graphical user interfaces? How do we know that?

Transformation drills can be conducted as follows:

The teacher explains that she/he is going to hold up a card with an active sentence written on it and the class have to quickly form a similar passive sentence without using 'by' and chant it together, so for example the teacher holds up:

Kate gave Peter a watch

The class then has to chant:

Peter was given a watch

Care has to be taken when choosing sentences that they are simple and easy to transform quickly.

Once the students have the idea sentences with 'by' can be requested. It is a good idea to repeat the sentences which were used earlier for the first few repetitions.

Activities For Passive Voice

Activity 1: As a warmer, students can talk in pairs about who made various things they own e.g. their clothes, shoes, cars, computers, electrical appliances etc. They will probably use active sentences or make some attempt to use passive which should lead you in nicely to your grammar presentation.

After you have taught the grammar, as controlled practice, students can then change partners and tell their new partner about their previous partner's possessions using the passive (hopefully correctly now after your excellent teaching!).

Activity 2: A freer practice activity could be to put students into two groups and get them to devise a quiz using a mixture of tenses (depending on the level of your class and what you have taught). Elicit some ideas for the basis of questions such as countries of origin, songs and their singers, films and their actors/directors, sporting events etc.

Don't forget to monitor all activites.

Example questions:

1. In which nation is the most coffee consumed? (answer:A)

    a. Finland
    b. Brazil
    c. USA

2. Where was the printing press invented? (answer: C)

    a. China
    b. Austria
    c. Germany

3. Who sang “It's too late”? (answer: A)

    a. Carole King
    b. Ella Fitzgerald
    c. Nat King Cole

Students will be awarded 1 point for the correct answer and 1 point for correct use of the passive. The teacher will write the scores on the board.

Activity 3: Students think about their own country and answer these questions:

    1. What raw materials are produced?
    2. What is manufactured?
    3. What alcohol is made?
    4. What is done with rubbish?
    5. What is exported and imported?
    6. What sports are played?
    7. How are politicians elected?
    8. How is electricity produced?

This could be modified to be about a student's place of work too.

Activity 4: What happened?

Ask students questions randomly a few times until you're happy that they're using the form correctly and then get them to work in pairs and ask each other. Students have to spontaneously think of an answer using the passive. For example:

    Teacher: Why are you so happy?
    Student: I was promoted today.
    Teacher: What happened to your leg?
    Student: I was bitten by a dog.
    Student A: Where's your mobile?
    Student B: It was stolen on the metro.

This activity will also work well with children as it requires imagination and there is room for the ridiculous.

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