The passive is a difficult structure for English language learners to understand and more so to put into use. One misunderstanding they have is in regards to who or what is doing or instigating the action in question. As Parrot (2010, p. 336) points out, learners can confuse the subject for the agent in a passive sentence e.g. “A man was attacked by three women.” Another issue is that they have trouble selecting appropriate verbs with which to construct the this pattern. For instance, as Carter, McCarthy, Mark, and O’Keeffe (2011, p. 367) explain, we cannot form the passive voice with intransitive verbs. The reason this is, Swan (2005, p. 386) says, is because “there is nothing to become the subject.” Swan also points out that there are also some transitive verbs not used in the passive, most of which are state verbs. Even once an understanding of the passive has been reached, learners still have trouble using it. Parrot (2010, p. 337) observes that many learners, even those with a good grasp of the passive, avoid using it all together. Conversely, one of the main problems I have witnessed after instructing students is that they over-use it, using it in sentences and expressions that are not typically expressed in the passive. With this in mind, the aim of this lesson is to present the present and past simple forms of the passive to students and give them a controlled opportunity to use it so that they can produce appropriate sentences.
Level: Pre-intermediate as first presentation of passive, intermediate and above as a review
Materials: Students’ notebooks and smart phones
Begin the lesson by bringing attention to a sentence you have already written on the board:
Bananas are grown in Queensland.
Ask the students, ‘What is grown in Queensland?’ (Bananas) Then ask them, ‘Who grows the bananas?’ (Farmers) These questions could be answered and problem-solved in pairs/groups or as a whole class. Now ask, ‘How can we write a similar sentence but using farmers?’ Try to elicit from the whole class and write the following sentence below the first one:
Farmers grow bananas in Queensland.
Ask the class, ‘Why are farmers not written in the first sentence?’ (The main focus is bananas; it’s obvious who grows them.) Now bring attention to the form of the second sentence. Elicit the tense from the students: present simple. Underline the verb: grow. Then bring attention to the passive sentence and elicit what auxiliary verb is used: be. And what form the other verb is: past participle. Underline and label these verbs. (It is probably better to model the passive using irregular verbs because the past participle can easily be distinguished from the past simple verb.) You can now explain that the first sentence is a passive sentence and the second sentence is an active sentence because the subject (the agent) does the action.
Now give the students a chance to use this form. Explain to the class that you are going to have a quiz, explaining what a quiz is if the students do not already know. Divide the students into teams of 2-3 and ask them to create a team name and write them down the side of the board. Then bring their attention to the quiz question (sentence) you have written on the board:
Coffee is grown in Russia/Colombia/Canada.
Ask the class, ‘What is the correct answer?’ (Colombia) Write the following verbs on the board: grow, produce, sell. Task the students to write three present simple passive sentences using verbs from the board, providing three possible options at the end of the sentences. Explain that they can search for information on the internet using their smart phones. Elicit things the students can write about e.g. foods, electronic devices, cars etc. Monitor the students to make sure they are doing the task correctly but do not correct them as this will be part of the quiz. Once they have all completed their three sentences bring their attention to another sentence on the board:
The Mona Lisa was painted by Michaelangelo/Picasso/Di Vinci.
Ask them if they all know what the Mona Lisa is and what it is a painting of. Show them a picture on a phone if they do not. Then ask the class, ‘Who painted the Mona Lisa?’ Followed by the question, ‘Is this an active or passive sentence?’ (Passive) Elicit the position of the agent in a passive sentence and highlight the preposition needed before the agent (by). Now ask the students, ‘What is the tense of the sentence?’ (Past simple passive) Highlight the past form of the verb to be and the past participle. Then bring their attention to another list of verbs on the board: paint, invent, create, write. Instruct each team to write another three sentences in the past simple passive using the verbs on the board. Elicit things the students can write about e.g. paintings, inventions, books etc. Monitor and assist without directly correcting the sentences.
Once the students have completed their six sentences you can then start the quiz. Tell them they will receive one point for every correct answer they guess and one point for every correct sentence they write. The first team will read their first sentence and the three possible options. Give the other students about 30 seconds to decide on the answer. Collect answers from around the class. Now have the first team read out the original answer and give a point to any of the teams who had the correct answer. Then ask the class if the grammar of the sentence was correct. If the essential features of the passive were present, give the team a point on the board. Then move to the first question of the second team and repeat the steps. After all the questions have been read and answered, tally the scores and announce the winner. If you are running out of time, you can simply have three or four rounds of questions instead of six.
This has proven to be an effective lesson by which to both teach and practise the passive. It also works at higher levels as a review. Its effectiveness hinges on the novelty and competitiveness of practising grammar through a quiz and also because of the verbs that have been given to the students. The latter point is extremely important with lower levels since it helps prevent students from writing passive sentences which do not resemble native language. Furthermore, the verbs provide direction in content, since the students will probably know some common collocations of the verbs i.e. paint a picture, grow fruits and vegetables.
Carter, R., McCarthy, M., Mark, G., & O’Keeffe, A. (2011). English Grammar Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parrott, M. (2010). Grammar for English Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Swan, M. (2005). Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This post by Peter Guylay.
Peter has been working as an English language teacher for over ten years and has taught in Korea, China and his home country of Australia. He has an interest in Critical ELT and has also written for the English Australia Journal.