Number one for English language teachers

The passive in English – tips and activities

Type: Reference material

Tips and ideas from Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on teaching the passive in English.


Variations on quizzes (elementary to advanced)

The passive is a favourite grammar area to use for quizzes. In coursebooks, these are often 'general knowledge quizzes'. A variation on this would be to design a 'themed' quiz. For example:

Entertainment Quiz: Books, Movies, Music and Art

  1. Who was … written by?
  2. Who was …directed by?
  3. Which film was awarded the Oscar for best picture in…?
  4. Who was… played by in the movie…?
  5. Who was … composed by?
  6. Who was … sung by?
  7. Who was … painted by?
  8. This will generate lots of examples of the past passive.
  9. Geography Quiz or History Quiz
  10. Where is…grown/cultivated/harvested?
  11. What country is surrounded by…?
  12. Where is … made?
  13. Who was … discovered by?
  14. In which country was … invented?
  15. When was … invented?

A geography quiz will generate lots of examples of the present passive, while the history quiz will generate examples of the past passive.

The natural follow-up to any quiz like those above would be to ask the students to make a quiz themselves.


Changes (lower intermediate to intermediate)

To elicit the passive, any number of activities involving the students talking about changes can be used. Here are some examples.

Changes in your town (present perfect passive)
Write down some changes in the town where you live over the past fifty years. e.g., A new hospital has been built. Include things that haven’t been changed, but that you would like to see changed. e.g. The new sports stadium still hasn’t been opened.

Changes in the classroom (present perfect passive)
Ask a student or students to leave the room. Make some changes in the classroom, e.g. knock some books onto the floor, turn the lights out, erase the board etc. Ask the students to come back into the room and guess what has been changed.

Changes in your life (past passive or passive with used to)
Write the following words up on the board: call, blame, punish, teach. Ask the students to think about when they were children. They should write sentences in the past passive, or used to passive with these verbs. For example:

  • When I was eight years old…
  • I was called Chuckie.
  • I was taught to listen in class and never question the teacher.
  • I always used to be blamed for hitting my little brother.


The work tour

If you are teaching English for Specific Purposes, or English for Business and are teaching in your students’ workplace, the tour of where they work can generate a lot of passives. Ask students to prepare a tour of their workplace. Provide them with questions to help elicit the passive voice. For example:

  • Where are the major decisions made?
  • Where is most of the work done?
  • Where are the supplies kept?


Scientific experiments

Because a high quantity of passives occur in scientific texts, try bringing some simple ones in for students to analyse. The website Popular Science (www.popsci.com)  is one possible source, or look at the Science section of any news website to find out about recent experiments.

A more creative exercise for general English classes would be for students to role play scientists, presenting the results of certain 'crazy' experiments. They would write up their mock experiments first, and then present them orally to each other.


In the news

Go to any news website and look for news stories that have examples of the passive. Put together three or four of these on a worksheet. Ask students to 1) find and underline the passives and 2) speculate why the passive is used there.

A variation on this activity would be to find an interesting news story (again, with examples of the passive in it) and give students a number of key words from the story (include at least one passive). Ask students to write what they think the news story is about, then compare with the original. Then analyze the differences. Did the students use active voice or passive voice more?


It is said

To practise the passive form of reporting verbs, you could do one of the following activities.

Five bizarre things
Ask students to think of five bizarre facts about the town they live or a place they know (they could do this for homework). These could be strange historical facts, legends about local people, scary stories… Prepare five yourself about a place that you know to give them an example. Ask them to write out each fact, but starting with one of the following constructions:

  • It is believed that…
  • It is said that…
  • It is claimed that…
  • Ask students to exchange their bizarre facts.


The rumour mill

This kind of activity works best with a class who all get along quite well. Ask students to write down their name on a small piece of paper. Collect the papers, then redistribute them so that everyone has a new name. The students must not say whose name they now have. Ask them to invent a rumour about that person and write it down on the piece of paper. For example: Ivan was wearing high heeled shoes; Daniela had dinner with a tall handsome stranger. Then collect all the papers again. At the end of class, tell the students that they are going to hear what the “rumour mill” is saying about them. Ask a student to pull out a paper and to read the rumour out loud, prefacing it with: It is said that… The student about whom the rumour was written must defend himself/herself and give an explanation.


Active vs. passive in writing: which is better?


If you are working with upper intermediate or advanced classes and reviewing the passive, you could point out that the passive voice is often a source of much controversy in English writing. In 1946, English writer George Orwell said “Never use the passive where the active is possible.” While this is perhaps going too far, many guides to clear writing recommend that people should use active over passive constructions wherever possible. Why is this? Because if a writer overuses the passive, it makes things much more confusing. This is particularly prevalent in legal documents and official documents. Show the students the following two texts (from a financial advisor to her client) and ask them which one they think is clearer:

We have been asked by your home insurers to obtain your written confirmation that all their requirements have been completed by yourself.
Your home insurers have asked us to obtain your written confirmation that you have completed all the documents.
Did they prefer the second one? That’s what the Oxford Guide to Plain English (1999) also recommends (where the example was cited from).

Similarly, university students are discouraged from overusing constructions such as “It is believed that…” Why? Because it could mean that they don’t know who believes it or said it. This kind of information might be important in academic writing. Students should be able to use the passive effectively in their own writing, but be very careful not to overuse it.Anchor Point:bottom

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