There are tons of uses for the passive voice. But rather than reading 30 pages on the matter or listen to a lecturer profess its values, students need practice and application; how to identify, practice, and produce the passive voice.
But before we move on, let’s review some basic rules and terms:
What are active and passive sentences?
Here’s a quick refresher:
[Subject / Object]
Dinner is eaten by me.
[Object / Subject]
An active verb is one that follows a subject pronoun, i.e. a doing verb.
A passive verb is one that follows an abstract noun or a noun to which an action is being done.
“Me” is the agent, the doer of the action.
The passive tense “formula”
- The action verb is in the past participle. This is standard for all use of the passive voice.
- The be verb can be modified to change tense. For example:
Dinner was eaten / has been eaten / had been eaten etc.
- However, the action verb must remain in the past participle form. It cannot be expressed in the present participle.
- Thus the rule for the passive voice is:
Object + be + past participle ( + agent )
Activity 1: Error-spotting
Write these sentences on the whiteboard and ask students to explain why they’re wrong.
|✓||The lesson is taught by the teacher.||Adequate [object / agent] agreement|
|X||He is taught the lesson.||Passive constructions [be + past participle] cannot follow subject pronouns [he]|
|X||They is eaten dinner.||No [subject / verb] agreement; same error as above|
|X||Dinner is eaten by they.||[Object / agent] agreement is almost correct, but the agent must be an object pronoun [they]|
|X||They ate dinner.||This is an active sentence.|
|✓||Dinner is eaten by them.||Adequate passive sentence, if a bit odd. Better clarify who is [them].|
Activity 2: BINGO – for language accuracy
- Ask students to draw a table of 9 cells. Tell the students that they are going to practice using the verb eat. Ask them to write the verb on top of the table. Then ask them to pick a random cell into which they will write the following phrases; teacher reads passive sentences using:
- Students can place Xs in the unused cells. The students’ cells should all be filled with different tenses. It should look something like this:
|Has/have been eaten||Is eaten||Was eaten|
|Is being eaten||X||Had been eaten|
|Was being eaten||X||X|
- Now the teacher will read the tenses (eg: past perfect). Students will cross out the box that contains this form. Teacher continues to read tense names until one student earns BINGO. Cells filled with Xs count as completed cells (it should happen quite fast). Elicit how to create a continuous form – where does the -ing go? Answer is on the be verb.
- It’s time to play for real. Ask students to draw a 9 cell table again. Tell them that all cells will be filled now with the following (not all) tenses (write on the whiteboard):
|Past simple||Present simple||Future simple|
|Past continuous||Present continuous||Future continuous|
|Past perfect||Present perfect||Future perfect|
|Past perfect continuous||Present perfect continuous||Future perfect continuous|
- Students will select whichever ones they want; they cannot choose all of them as they only have 9 cells to fill. Students must write the verb in the passive voice according to the tense, such that the future perfect passive for “eat” is will have been eaten (make sure that students remember to include the be verb – been in this case).
- Again, make sure (monitor) that students are writing the sentences in a random order. Once students are finished, explain that BINGO should only be called for horizontal, vertical, or diagonal streaks.
- Play the game with the whole class. Teacher reads the tense and calls on a student to say the phrase. Eg:
Teacher: “Past perfect – drive.”
Student: “Had been driven.”
- Play until a winner shouts BINGO. Clap for the winner. Continue playing until SUPER BINGO is called. Clap again.
- Tell students to form groups of 3 and create another table of 9 cells. Students should use the remaining tenses that they did not use in the last round. The new verb could be “write”. They will continue playing for another 10 minutes (adding up the time to create the table, writing down the phrases, etc). Teacher will call out the tenses and will write down the names of the first winners of each group on the whiteboard, the first group to earn BINGO, and the first student to earn SUPER BINGO.
BINGO assessed students’ language accuracy, now it’s time for a more independent group task, a way to assess students’ fluency:
Activity 3: Production Task – for language fluency
- Create a news report (fictional or real) about an environmental event such as a fire, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, tsunami, blizzard etc. Select a location (city or country) and present it to the class, pointing out your use of the passive tense throughout.
Now, it’s the students’ turn. Here are the “specs” for this project:
- Two paragraph limit (dialogue / interview / report).
- 1-2 minute presentation limit (video / audio format).
- More than 6 passive sentences.
- 3 students per group.
- Record your news report with your smartphone and send the file to your teacher.
- 20 mins to complete report (writing & recording).
- Use passive voice to deliver information and conditionals to present situations that could have happened given different circumstances.
Passive eg: The rabbit was rescued by the man.
BONUS: Conditional eg: If the wind hadn’t changed so rapidly, the fire wouldn’t have spread so quickly.
Remember, your students will need to experience several different approaches to the passive tense before they are able to reproduce it easily and naturally. The great thing about these activities—particularly BINGO—is that they can be returned to (with added complexity) once students’ confidence increases and they are able to produce more interesting, complex passive voice sentences. Good luck!