Lindsay Clandfield offers some advice and suggestions for practising the passive in conversation classes.

Any ideas about how to practise the passive (all tenses) in a conversation class?  The students (30 energetic Italian pupils aged 15) have studied the passive forms with their usual English teacher.  They can do written exercises to transform active to passive and vice versa and can construct passive sentences and questions (at least in theory).  Now I, the conversation teacher, have been asked to practise the passive orally in my next 50 minute lesson.  Any suggestions?

Anchor Point:1Introduction

I sympathize. Many people believe that the 'conversation teacher' has a nice easy job – all you have to do is chat with them, or get them to chat in English. However, the gap between saying 'now discuss' and the students actually discussing the things you want them to can be very large. It’s also not easy when you are asked to include specific grammar in the conversation.

The key is to think of a context in which this language will naturally occur. In your case, this is quite a challenge. In fact, I cannot think of any context in which people would have a conversation including all the different tenses in the passive voice. That being said, here are some different quick speaking activities you could perhaps use in the future for passive voice.

Anchor Point:2The robbery

This is a simple transformation type activity to give restricted practice to the past passive (for when the agent is unknown). Tell the students the following story:

Last night some people robbed the school. They took some supplies. They broke a window. They stole a television and two computers. Finally, they photocopied all the final exam papers.

When you finish, ask them to retell the story to each other, but this time using the passive. Give them the first sentence: Last night the school was robbed. Let them continue in pairs. Students can then make their own story for each other (sample titles: the kidnapping, the murder, the corruption scandal).

Anchor Point:3Three guesses

This is a guessing game. Prepare three clues about a person or thing – include at least one passive in the clues.

e.g. for a person

  • I was born in Australia.
  • I worked with wild animals all my life.
  • I was killed by a stingray in 2006.
    (answer: Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter)

e.g for a thing

  • I’m found deep underground.
  • I’m used for many purposes, including heating, gasoline and making plastics.
  • I’m almost finished now, people say I will be gone in fifty years.
    (answer: oil)

Demonstrate the game by telling the students your clues and asking them to guess who or what you are. Then ask students to make similar clues and test each other orally. This is still rather restricted but at least now they are coming up with their own language. You could also give each student a slip of paper with a name of a person or thing for them to make clues for. A variation is that the students hear the clues and then ask two or three more questions before they guess.

Anchor Point:4Everything will be taken care of

Here is a freer roleplay activity to provide opportunities to practise the present and future passive voice. Put the students into groups of three and tell them that they are going to roleplay travel agents. Each group has a luxury package that they want to sell. They must prepare an oral description of the experience for the tourist. For example:

Our package holiday is in Hawaii. You will be met at the airport by our representative and taken to your hotel. Your luggage will be taken to your room for you. You are invited to the welcome cocktails on the beach. All your meals are prepared with the finest ingredients and by the best chefs in the region…

If the students need some help or support in this, write the following prompts on the board:

  • You will be met…
  • You will be taken…
  • Your meals will be prepared…
  • You are invited…

Encourage students to think of others. When they have finished, ask groups to sit together and explain their package holiday. Who has the most interesting?

Anchor Point:5Questionnaire

Finally, you could prepare a questionnaire with a mixture of examples, some containing the passive voice.Here’s a sample questionnaire on the subject of 'You and the media'.

  • Have you ever been asked to speak on the radio? When?
  • Have you ever been filmed? When?
  • Have you ever written a letter to the newspaper? Was it published?
  • Have you ever been on television? What for?
  • When was the last time you were moved by a news story? What was the story?

Students then interview each other using the questions.

You can change the subject of the questionnaire to something else, and don’t feel you need to have ALL the questions in passive voice. We don’t always speak using the passive – in fact many argue that it is more common in written English, which is why a conversation purely in the passive would sound strange to say the least.

Good luck with it.