The passive voice is something of an odd fish. Learners need to be able to understand and use it, both in real life and for exam purposes. However, we can often go down the rabbit hole of active-to-passive, passive-to-active transformations, without really touching on real-life use.
So, when and why do we use the passive? Cambridge’s English Grammar Today states:
“We use the passive for different reasons. We sometimes use it to give focus to something. We can also use it because we don’t know the identity of the ‘doer’ or because it’s not important to know who or what did the action. In addition, we use it to be impersonal and create distance.”
So, what does that mean in reality? In which situations are we most likely to naturally use the passive?
- In academic, scientific or technical contexts. This is because academic papers usually give more importance to the processes or research done than to the person who did them.
For example: The subjects were monitored over a period of three months.
- In news reports, passives ensure an impersonal distance is created. This helps make the articles sound more neutral and can also increase the focus on processes, for example in articles about crimes.
For example: Three men in their 20s have been charged with theft.
- In conversation when we want to emphasise a piece of information. By using a passive construction, we can end an utterance with the most important information, thereby making it more emphatic.
For example: I was hired by the company director personally.
- In signage where the agent is not known
For example: WARNING: This door is alarmed.
Rather than just ‘teaching the passive’, I think it is important to focus on real-life use. To this end, I found some authentic materials from The Guardian to demonstrate high-density passive use in many different tenses. This was intended as a review for a B2 class, but could equally be used with both more and less advanced students. As always, you can use the lesson below as a guideline or disregard it entirely. Use the materials however you think best!
- Show slide 1 from the presentation below. There are four images on the slide. Ask learners to predict, in pairs or groups, how the four images are connected. Give a few minutes for discussion. Elicit a couple of ideas.
- Show slide 2, which gives the article title. Allow learners a moment to consider how closely their prediction matches the title.
- Inform learners that they are going to read the full story of what happened, using an article from The Guardian. If you feel it is necessary, select some words for pre-teaching. Depending on the level and L1 of students, these may be different. I would suggest teaching some of the legal and nautical language to ensure learners don’t get side-tracked.
detained: kept under police control, securely at the police station or in prison
trafficking: conducting illegal trade
docked: when a ship is securely in a port, it is ‘docked’.
held in custody: arrested and held in prison
- Hand out the article and give an appropriate amount of time to read it over. I would say about three to five minutes, depending on level, is appropriate. Check basic understanding with a few simple CCQs, for example:
1. Where and why were the couple arrested?
2. Who is managing the police investigation?
3. Why do you think this story was reported in the news?
4. [optional slide 3 – if you have use of an interactive whiteboard or projector, or you could print the map for each pair of students] Complete the map of the ship’s journey
- Moving on to the grammar focus, draw attention to the subheading. Copy out “Drugs were hidden in four suitcases“onto the board. Ask learners a few concept questions to clarify:
1. What are the verbs in the sentence? (were, hidden)
2. Who hid the drugs? (The couple in their 70s)
3. Why doesn’t the subheading tell us who hid the drugs? (It’s already written in the title – don’t need to repeat, it’s obvious)
Depending on the level of the learners, you could dedicate more or less time to this step, going into detail on the name of the form (the passive) and the construction (correct form of ‘be’ + past participle) as required.
- Give learners five minutes or so to re-read the article, this time underlining all forms of the passive. See the Teacher’s Notes for a highlighted copy.
- To allow learners to better understand how using the passive indiscriminately is potentially unhelpful in furthering their English and may cause confusion, it is helpful to so a few transformations. Select a few of the options from the text and encourage learners to work together to transform them into the active voice. This may involve some considerable changes in structure, as well as alternative verb selections. You can go as deeply into this as you like, although be sure to provide a suitable level of support for your students.
“The couple, who have not been named, have appeared before a judge and are being held in custody” could become
“The couple have already appeared before a judge and remain in custody, although the police have not yet released their names.”
Having a discussion about if and how these changes affect the meaning, intention and clarity of these sentences will be essential. Some learners may be able to do this in pairs or small groups, while others will need more input from the teacher.
- To finish off, give learners a few minutes to think about (or research on their phones!) a local or national news story that was surprising to them in some way. They can then prepare a few notes, focusing on reminding themselves to use appropriate passive construction and share these stories in small groups. Encourage learners to ask questions about each story. This can be fairly unstructured, or if you prefer, you could set it up as a speed-dating style activity, or a ‘report to someone else what you’ve just heard’ type of activity.
- Mingle in with the learners, taking notes of both good and wobbly use of the passive. Write a few up on the board and ask learners if they can think of ways to improve some of the sentence. You could limit the focus to grammatical accuracy, or you could ask them to also try to build on the level and complexity of vocabulary used. It all depends on them, their capabilities and on what you, as their teacher, thinks the focus needs to be.