Authentic passives

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.

Jump to the lesson


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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

The Lesson

  • 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
    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.


Passive voice authentic materials: Article from The Guardian

Passive voice Teacher’s Notes

Passive voice presentation slides


Modals of deduction and speculation

Jump to the Lesson

As students learn a language, they develop patterns and phrases which help them express their thoughts, even if they haven’t yet been exposed to the most efficient or common way of doing it yet.

A good example of this is speculation and deduction. My learners usually use some variation on “Perhaps/Maybe” followed by whichever time tense is relevant. This is absolutely fine, and gets the point across, but can become quite repetitive. This is particularly clear in Cambridge exam-style speaking tasks, where speculation is a large necessary element.

Of course, life is not exams, and so the need to use complex speculation/deduction structures is not necessary, you might think. However, we do use these structures pretty regularly, in a variety of situations both academic and otherwise and so, I feel, its something to give a little attention to if you notice your students are mainly just repeating the same few forms.

As this is something I tend to teach remedially, as and when the need arises, it is a bit of a standalone lesson section. However, you could integrate this into a book-based course without difficulty. The pictures I’ve chosen to use as the basis of the lesson are quite irreverent, in order to make the language more memorable.

The Lesson

I’ve taught this lesson to B2-C1 students who are already aware of the structures, however you could use it to introduce them to lower levels, with a few tweaks.

  • Run a quick diagnostic activity to find out your students’ default choices for expressing the ideas of deduction and speculation. For this, you could use any picture of any situation, and ask the learners to tell you what they can speculate and deduce from it. Here is an example which is suited to my Italian context:Supercoppa Italiana 2015 Juventus vs. Lazio
  • Ask the learners to discuss the image, saying what they think has just happened and what will happen next. They should also discuss the people in the photo: what are they doing? What kind of interests do they have? Where are they from?
  • Make careful note of the language learners use to discuss the picture. You can then write some examples on the board to demonstrate the limited range of structures used.
  • Depending on their level, you can then elicit or introduce the structures you want to teach – They must be Juventus supporters because they’re wearing the team’s shirt, or They can’t be watching the match live, because they’re not in the stadium.
  • Leaving the language visible on the board for reference, show the learners the first photo on from the Powerpoint below. In pairs or small groups of 3, the learners discuss the image as they have already done with the previous picture. If you don’t have access to a projector, you could print the pictures out and hand out one to each pair or small group. Go through each of the images in turn, monitoring for correct use of the language.
  • Follow up on this over the course of the next few lessons in particular, using images or questions requiring speculation and/or deduction.


Download the lesson materials: Modals for supposition and deduction

Vocabulary expansion pack

Something many learners struggle with once they reach basic conversational fluency is how to keep improving. They probably already have a grasp on the main grammar stuff, and have the vocabulary they need to make themselves understood and to understand others.

At this point, I usually shift focus to vocabulary and lexical patterns. Expanding the range of available lexis gives learners options, flexibility and greater specificity in language. However, just exposing learners to language isn’t enough. How many words and phrases do your learners ‘know’ but never use?

Here are a few rapid-fire vocabulary review activities to help move passive understanding to active use.


This is a simple activity based on the TV game show.

  • Draw a long rectangle on the board and divide it into 9 squares.
  • Learners choose 3 vowels and 6 consonants.
  • They must make as many words as possible of four or more letters in 4 minutes (vary the time for age/ability).
  • Learners must only use the letters in the boxes, but they can repeat letters.
  • Bonus points are available for the individual or team with the longest words.

This is a useful warmer activity, as it forces learners to think of all possible combinations, without tying them to a particular theme or lexical set. The randomness of the letters helps them come up with words they wouldn’t usually use. The teacher’s role is essential here: learners are free to ask you to check spelling or word forms. This encourages greater creativity.

Backs to the board

This is a vocabulary classic. It is as simple or as complex as you make it, with very little prep required. Essentially, you split the learners into teams. Each team has a representative at the front of the class, sitting facing away from the board. The teacher writes an item of vocabulary on the board and the teams must describe it to their representative, without using the word itself. The first ones to correctly guess the word win a point.

Here are a couple of variations you could use.

Use specific language

Ensure you’re recycling the great language you’re feeding in. Use the lexis you’ve noticed that learners understand but don’t use. For example, if your class generally struggles with using linking phrases in essay writing, throw a couple into this activity before focusing on the day’s writing task.

Question forms

For a tricky twist, and to get learners using more complex question structures, try using questions and answers. The teacher writes the answer on the board, and the teammates must ask their representative the question which elicits that answer. This could be as simple as writing a student’s name on the board (“What’s his name?”) To something much more complex. For more complex questions, you’ll need to guide learners with timelines or drawings to clarify.

Don’t worry if you can’t draw, it adds to the fun. One of my 7-year-old students declared to me on Wednesday – with a little help translating one or two words – “No offence, but you’re not so good at drawing”. He’s right, I’m not.

Only phrasal verbs

If you have a class that struggles with using the many, many phrasal verbs they’ve been exposed to, play the game with only phrasal verbs. I like to mix between having the phrasal verb on the board to guess, and having an alternative, usually latin-based synonym up there. This means learners have to switch between using the phrasal verbs to describe, and using synonyms for their representative to guess. This spreads the load more evenly among the group.

As you can see, the possibilities are basically endless!

Word transformations

Here again there are many versions, so have a play and find what suits your learners and their needs.

  • Write a three letter word on the board, for example ‘cat’. Learners have to add or change one letter to make a new word, such as ‘cart’.
  • Set a time limit for learners to create as many new words as possible in a time limit of two or three minutes.

You can make this more difficult by giving the learners the first word and the last word in a chain and challenging them to get from one to the other using the method above.

Similarly to the Countdown activity above, the seeming randomness of the word connection forces out words learners often neglect to use.

Word search

…but not the kind you’re thinking of!

  • The teacher writes the word ‘wordsearch’ on the board.
  • Learners must find as many words as possible of three letters or more.
  • There are many many possibilities here, from the obvious – ‘word’ – to the more interesting – ‘ashore’ or ‘cashew’.
  • Set a strict time limit. I wouldn’t go over four minutes.

Banned words

Very much does what it says on the tin. Whether writing or discussing, it can be useful to have a temporary ban on some words. This will depend on your context and what is particularly overused by your learners.

I often write one or two words on the board which are banned for the duration of a particular activity. In my context, these are usually things like ‘beautiful’, ‘so-so’ and ‘according to me’. I am careful to stress that these are not words that need to be banned in general, but that occasionally I’d like to make sure that learners are pushing themselves to use their full vocabulary arsenal.

Good but…

When error correcting, we tend to focus on, well, errors! However, I feel that we can help our learners so much more than just picking out their errors. It can be very useful to focus on language which is good, but…simple.

  • The teacher writes a sentence or two on the board that they heard while monitoring a speaking section of the lesson.
  • They inform learners that the sentences are correct, well done!
  • However, the students are definitely capable of using more complex vocabulary and/or phrasing.
  • Learners work in pairs to upgrade the sentence/s without changing the meaning.
  • Feed back as a class and write up the options on the board. Learners can choose their favourite to make a note of.

Hopefully you found some of these ideas helpful! Let me know in the comments if you use any, or if you have your own tried and tested vocabulary building methods.

Structuring a paragraph – Writing 101

Before becoming a teacher, I had always thought writing was, simply, writing. However, I have since learned that writing traditions vary enormously from place to place. The writing style in Italy, where I live, is complex and lyrical, full of adjectives and sub-clauses, often repeating the same ideas several times in different ways. English, by contrast, is far less descriptive, foregrounding the importance of evidence supporting a clear topic. This is something that learners cannot always see for themselves. Therein lies out job. We must ensure learners write in a style and form that is clear to their English-speaking examiners, while not lessening their appreciation of their own writing tradition.

Working with classes aiming to take the Cambridge First certificate, I have found it necessary to focus explicitly on how to structure a paragraph. Simply using models, discussing the structure and then producing a text did not produce any great results, so I came up with a more hands-on approach which seems to have had more effect. This process is particularly useful in raising awareness of form for essays, articles and reviews. It would also be suitable for IELTS preparation.

The lesson

You will need

  • Coloured pens, pencils or highlighters
  • A sample paragraph, photocopied one per student
  • Another sample paragraph, cut into sections of topic sentence, supporting examples and concluding/linking/opinion sentences, one per pair
  • A sample essay/article/review, cut into separate pieces by paragraph, one per student. I usually use a sample essay from the coursebook I have been given.


  • Have a short discussion with learners in groups or plenary about what is expected of them in their native language writing at school or university. If they are older, ask them to reflect on what their teachers told them when they were studying. They will probably need some focus points to get going. These could include
    -use of adjectives
    -sentence length
    -how many ideas in a sentence?
    -use of paragraphs (Do they exist? How do you choose when to start a new one?)
    -Any other common structural and stylistic differences specific to your setting
  • Inform students that the focus of the lesson is on writing in English, and that you are going to look at some points of structure that will differ from what they have just been discussing. Learners should actively make a note of when these differences occur and what they are.
  • The teacher copies the flowchart below on to the board and explains the structure of a paragraph in English (see the teacher notes for more information).
  •  Hand out the photocopies of the sample paragraph. Elicit from learners what the topic sentence is, and where in the paragraph it usually appears (the start). They highlight the topic sentence. Repeat in pairs or small groups using different colours for the supporting statements and the conclusion/link/opinion. It is essential to support learners through this, as the concepts may be completely new. Avoid immediately giving the answer, instead supporting learners hypotheses and ideas where appropriate and gently steering them away when they go off track.
  • Hand out the second, cut up, example paragraph, one per pair. Learners work individually to reconstruct the paragraph in a logical order. The teacher should circulate, monitoring and supporting learners. Feed back in plenary if necessary, but you can probably get the point across to each individual group as you monitor, depending on how many students you have.
  • For the final section of the lesson, we move on to the structure of paragraphs in a whole text. Hand out your chosen cut up article, essay or review, one per pair. Students work in pairs to reconstruct it. Once the text is in order, learners should find and highlight the topic sentences, supporting examples and concluding sentences. At this point, give out more copies of the sample text so that each learner has a copy they can annotate and stick into their notebooks. Again, monitoring, support and guidance will be needed.
  • The logical end to a lesson this intensively focused on writing is, of course, to assign a piece of writing. I assign a First Certificate article, essay or review, telling learners that I will be specifically focusing on structure when I mark their texts. However, any general, long form piece of writing would also work.

Download the teachers’ notes here: Paragraph Structure Writing 101 Teacher Notes

Word of the Year 2018

The Collins Dictionary has just announced its 2018 Word of the Year, single-use. I thought this would make a great vocabulary and speaking focused lesson with strong links to current affairs. The choice of which vocabulary to focus on is up to you, and the level you want to teach. The lesson is certainly adaptable to any level, but if using it with A1-2 you might want to change some of the comprehension questions, or edit the listening text if you prefer.

Every year, several dictionaries bring out their Word of the Year, and Collins is the first to do so this year. You could extend this lesson further by making comparisons with other dictionaries’ chosen words once they are released.

The Lesson

  • Show slide 1 of the presentation, which contains some words newly-added to the dictionary this year. They are:
    1. Zoodles (noun; courgette cut into long thin ribbons and used as a low-carb/gluten-free replacement to noodles or spaghetti and other pasta)
    2. Instagramming (verb; from the noun ‘Instagram’. Has become a verb to describe taking and posting photos to the Instagram app)
    3. Gammon (noun; has always meant a boiled ham. New meaning describes usually middle-aged, white men who get angry and red-faced over issues such as Brexit, climate change, civil rights etc. The description was first used by Charles Dickens, but has become popular this year.)
  • Using the pictures to help, elicit the meaning of the words and check/drill pronunciation.
  • Discuss what these words might have in common (they’ve all been added to the dictionary this year).
  • Move to slide 2 of the presentation. Ensure learners understand the questions and the kind of answers they are looking for. Take the opportunity to review the clues we can take from question words, encourage them to think of synonyms/antonyms that they might want to listen out for in the text.
  • Using the text provided (download below) read the article adapted from the Collins Dictionary and Guardian websites. Learners make notes to answer the questions on slide 2. Read at a fairly natural pace, although try not to rush! Read the text twice, or more if your learners find it difficult.
    • Something I find helpful for under-confident learners is to read in sections, pausing to give them time to write answers before moving on to the next paragraph. It’s important to pause where natural text breaks occur, and not exactly wherever the answer happens to be!
  • Slide 3 is a personal response question to the Word of the Year. Learners discuss their opinions in groups. The teacher should monitor and give brief feedback in open class.
  • OPTIONAL: For higher-level or more ambitious classes, you could give them a copy of the text and analyse the vocabulary and structures. This could be done by discussing in small groups or researching online. There is a lot of vocabulary you could mine from this text!
  • The remaining slides are discussion questions based on the shortlisted and new words of the year. You could display them on a screen one by one, or print them off and stick or place them around the room to make a question circuit to get students up and moving. The teacher should monitor the discussions here, making notes on both excellent language used and common areas where language could be upgraded. Error correction, featuring of good language use and general feedback can then be given at the end.
  • OPTIONAL: You could ask learners if there are any new words which have been created in their language recently, or any culturally-significant phrases which have become very popular. These could relate to sports, crazes among young people, political movements and more! While the words themselves may not be in English, the requirement to describe their meaning and cultural/social significance will produce some great language for the teacher to build on and extend.

Download the slides here: Collins Dictionary Word of the Year 2018 lesson plan slides

Download the listening text here:

Collins Dictionary Word of the Year 2018 lesson plan listening text

Two-sentence horror stories for teens

Two-sentence horror stories are something I have used for several years with my teenage classes since I saw this post on Buzzfeed and this one on Thought Catalogue. It’s adaptable for levels B1 and up, with a correspondingly appropriate level of support and guidance. Learners enjoy it because there’s not much actual writing; it’ more about finding an idea and refining it.

In doing variants on this lesson over the last few years, I’ve noticed that many students, even at higher levels, lack the range of vocabulary to create an atmospheric story. Therefore, there is a strong focus on synonyms, particularly of adjectives, to help them upgrade their language. Additionally, sentence structure is key here. Students want to stretch out their two sentences and squeeze in as much detail as possible. This lesson aims to show them that there are other options for creating an effective story.

The Lesson


  • Introduce the concept of the two-sentence horror story.
  • Hand out the horror stories to each student. They read through and underline any words they aren’t sure of. Discuss in pairs or small groups which story they think is the most effective/scariest. Learners help each other to understand their underlined words. The teacher provides input and confirmation of ideas where necessary.
  • Each group feeds back their favourite story. Teacher writes one on the board.
  • Example:
    My daughter won’t stop crying and screaming in the middle of the night. I visit her grave and ask her to stop, but it doesn’t help.
    In open class, focus on the different elements which make this example an effective story. Try to structure the discussion so that learners know which element to focus on. Take their ideas and try to elicit what they know, but don’t be afraid to direct them to the points you want to emphasise. Many learners won’t have analysed a text in this way before, particularly in English. Sometimes learners need explicit explanation – you can’t elicit what they don’t know.
    • Structure: The first sentence seems like a normal situation, maybe the daughter is a baby. The second sentence surprises you by revealing that the daughter is dead
    • Atmosphere: The writer sets the action in the middle of the night, a quiet, scary time. The mother visits her daughter’s grave – cemeteries are spooky places; we understand from the location that the daughter is dead. The final clause lets us know the scary situation will never end, even though the story is over.
    • Atmosphere part 2: Nothing is explicitly named. The author doesn’t say ‘ghost’ or ‘poltergeist’. They use words that clearly demonstrate what’s happening, but it’s your own mind that has to make the connection to a haunting ghost. Leaving something to the imagination is often much scarier than listing lots of details.
    • Language: What language is used to intensify the scare-factor? Using ‘crying and screaming’ as a pair is more intense, but three words would be overkill.
    • Language 2: The language itself is quite simple. The author lets the structure, atmosphere and your imagination do most of the work.
  • You could repeat this analysis in groups with a story which uses more colourful vocabulary to demonstrate a different, but equally effective, approach.


  • In groups, learners brainstorm more interesting synonyms of the following words:
    • scary/scared
    • bad
    • dark
    • horrible
    • ugly
    • not nice
    • strange
    • quiet
  • You can, of course, add to this list. If learners are struggling, they can use a physical or online thesaurus – keep an eye on the accuracy of synonyms and advise as to their use. This stage will require active monitoring and teacher input.
  • Plan: Learners individually plan their horror stories. They should think about..
    • Idea: what’s the story going to be about? How is it scary?
    • Characters : how many? What’s their relationship (if any) to one another?
    • Structure: Long sentences or short? Is it s conversation? Do you want to use direct or reported speech?
    • Language: which interesting words fit your story? Could you use any descriptive pairs? The teacher should help in vocabulary selection to check that appropriate collocations are used.
  • Learners draft their stories and share them in pairs. Partners work together to give advice on any problem areas, or any elements the writer is unsure of. They can check grammar and spelling, but this should mainly be about refinement of ideas, structural choices and vocabulary selection.
  • Learners write up their final story. They then copy this out onto card and decorate it appropriately for a super-scary wall display.

Download the two-sentence horror stories here: Horror stories handout

Spooky spider friends for kids

Halloween is almost here! It’s my favourite holiday (after Christmas) so I am very much looking forward to some themed lessons over the next week.

Here’s a simple craft activity you can do with younger, lower level kids. They design and make a spooky spider friend, who can be as cute or scary as they like! They enjoy it as it gives them something to take home and show off, but it also helps practice and improve motor skills, and you can introduce/recycle lots of useful language;

  • instructions
  • craft words (cut, colour, stick, glitter etc)
  • words and phrases for sharing and being kind
  • body and face vocabulary
  • Halloween vocabulary

The lesson

Begin with a brief game or use flashcards to present/check some Halloween vocabulary. Make sure to include ‘spider’, as well as the typical Halloween colours: black, orange, green, red.

If Halloween is not celebrated in your country, this section may need to be developed further with a short video and discussion.

You’ll need to prepare an example before class to demonstrate to the students what the final result will be.

  1. Take a piece of A4 black card and cut out a fairly large oval shape.
  2. Cut two finger-sized circles near the bottom edge. These will be to stick your fingers through and make the final pair of legs. Younger children will need help with this.
  3. Stick 3 pairs of legs along the spider’s sides. These can be made from lolly sticks, straws or pipe cleaners – whatever you have available.
  4. Design a cute/scary face for your spider. It needs lots of eyes, a mouth and some big sharp teeth! I usually use stick-on googly eyes for this. They show up better on the black card and kids love them. For the teeth, kids can cut and stick triangles of white paper. Glitter glue makes the decoration more exciting and is (usually) less messy than paint or loose glitter.
  5. Put your fingers in the holes to make the fourth pair of legs for your spider, and you’re done!

Happy Halloween!

Thanks to Jenny Holden of IH Palermo for introducing me to this idea!