Some advice and suggestions for practising the passive in a conversation class.

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?


I don't know exactly what you're expected to do in a 'conversation' class, Simone. There seems to be a bit of a contradiction between conversing, on the one hand, and practising a particular grammar structure, on the other.

One approach would be to give rather open-ended conversation topics, e.g. 'My early childhood', which would give the learners an opportunity to use passives, in this case to talk about how they were treated by their parents and their first teachers, for example. But of course there's no guarantee that they would use any passives, because there isn't actually any need to. Even if you told them they were supposed to use passives, they might completely forget about it once they got talking. So the activity might be useful as general fluency practice, but it wouldn't fulfil the aim you've got in mind.

I often find that learners can study new grammar, and do drills and transformation exercises, and so on, but when they speak spontaneously they don't put it into practice, but rather use the language they could use already; there seems to be no connection between the two types of activity. Of course making that connection takes time, but I think that as teachers we can help to speed things up.

So my suggestions (eight of them) are rather different. They're much more structured, and contrived to force a need to use passives. I don't think there's anything wrong with contriving to do this; in fact I think it's necessary, in order for learners to begin to add new grammar to the stock of language they can use actively. At the same time, to varying extents, the suggested activities contain opportunities for extension into stretches of freer conversation.

Of course, if you decide to use any of these, you'll need to adapt them to suit the learners' interests and level. Better still, they might stimulate you to invent some activities of your own!

Old photos

You need some old photos of the learners' town - or maybe just one photo if it shows plenty of detail. Maybe the learners themselves can provide some.

Display the photos the class in some way – circulate them round the class, pin them on the wall, distribute photocopies (if the quality's good enough!), or show them on an OHP – and ask learners, working in groups, to note changes that have taken place since the photos were taken.

Ask them to report the changes using the present perfect passive and adding extra information if relevant e.g. The main street's been pedestrianised, and now there are flowerbeds and fountains in the middle.

Finally you could ask them what they think has changed for the better, and what for the worse, and what changes they would like to see in the future e.g:

It would be good if traffic was banned completely from the town centre.

I think that ugly office block in XXXX Street should be demolished.

The story of an object

You can model this activity for the class. Choose some humble, unassuming object you've got with you, e.g. a watch, show it to the class and tell its story in the first person, being as inventive as you like, and including lots of passives:

I was produced in a factory in Japan about five years ago, packed in a big dark container with lots of other watches and sent on a long journey across the sea. I felt quite seasick at times and I was glad when we reached dry land at last... I once got dropped behind a chest of drawers and forgotten about for a couple of years, and was rediscovered by a big white cat ...

Tell the learners to choose an object and give them a couple of minutes to invent some episodes in its life - or, of course, to recall some real events that have happened to it.

They tell their stories to each other in pairs or small groups.

They circulate and find a new listener or a new group of listeners (or you might need to organise this more strictly and tell them who should talk to who).

They can repeat this procedure for as long as it seems productive. The value of the repetition is that the stories will get improved and elaborated, and it's quite likely that the passives in the stories will get more accurate. In other words it's an opportunity for development, not mere repetition.


Divide the class into teams and ask them to brainstorm ten general knowledge questions (or however many you think is suitable) for the other team(s) to answer. The questions should all contain passives. You might need to give some sample questions to get them started. They could include questions like these:

Name three countries where Spanish is spoken

How often is the president of the USA elected?

Where are the next Olympic Games going to be held?

When was Pompeii destroyed?

Circulate and help them to make all their questions accurate and, if necessary, to weed out any unfair questions!

The quiz then takes place. You could perhaps award points for factually correct answers and for accurate use of passives - in casual conversation the answer to the question When was Pompeii destroyed? is likely to be simply A.D. 79, but in a quiz it's quite normal to answer Pompeii was destroyed in A.D. 79.

Spoof news items

In groups, learners invent a news story about a well-known character, maybe a pop singer or sports personality, or perhaps a member of the class. They should include plenty of passives. Example:

(Name of their favourite pop singer) has been appointed Professor of Music at (name of local university). The decision was announced yesterday, and was immediately described by the Society for the Promotion of Proper Music as 'outrageous', but it has been welcomed by (name of singer)'s many fans...

They edit their news items to make them as accurate as possible, give them titles (maybe using reduced passives like Singer appointed professor) and pin them on the wall so that everyone can read all the stories.

Invent a machine

In groups, learners invent a machine e.g. a machine for waking heavy sleepers in the morning, an exercise machine for lazy people, a machine for making square oranges and rehearse an official-sounding description of how it works. Example:

The bucket is filled with water the previous evening, placed on a shelf above the sleeper's head, and connected to the timer. The water is kept at a temperature just above freezing point by a sophisticated cooling system

They should also draw diagrams on OHPs or large sheets of paper to show how their machine works.

Each group in turn then presents their machine to the rest of the class, and responds to any questions or comments.


You could ask learners to write a passives questionnaire, or give them a ready-made one. Here are some possible questions:

What's the best thing you've ever been invited to?

Do you know anyone who's been elected to an important position?

Have you ever been robbed?

When was the first time you were taken somewhere on holiday?

Have you ever been mistaken for someone else?

Where were your shoes made?

Do you like being photographed?

Have you ever been punished for something you didn't do?

When was the last time you were kept waiting?

Have any of your valued possessions ever got broken?

What's the most exciting thing you've ever been involved in?

Can you think of a situation when you got left behind?

Do you mind being corrected when you speak English?

How do you react when you get asked questions you don't want to answer?

You could also add the following questions to show that these are also actually passives, although the learners might not have thought of them like that before:

Where were you born?

Do you think you'll ever get married?

If you've got a pet, what's it called, and why?

They can work through the questionnaires in pairs, or circulate and ask various members of the class. They should feel free to talk at greater length about any interesting points that arise.

There could be a final plenary stage where they report some of the most interesting things they found out.

Comparing English with L1

Give learners a list of passive sentences such as this:

Passengers are requested not to leave luggage unattended.

CDs bought and sold.

The first prize was awarded to .....

That remains to be seen.

Trespassers will be prosecuted.

Each entry must be accompanied by a separate form.

The church was badly damaged by fire in 1562.

You must have been pleased when you got promoted.

The government's action was described by protesters as a threat to civil liberty.

I can't be bothered.

Faxed proposals will not be accepted.

It's only to be expected.

Ask them to work in pairs and, for each sentence:

a) decide whether it's likely to be spoken or written, or whether it could be either.

b) decide where / when / in what context it's likely to be seen / heard.

c) translate it into their L1, in a way that would be appropriate for the context.

Hold a plenary discussion about their translations. In particular:

a) If their L1 has something similar to the English passive, does it appear in the translations? What other structures have they used?

b) If their L1 doesn't have anything like the English passive, what structures have they used?

Some time later - perhaps the following week - you could hand out a list of L1 versions of the sentences, or similar sentences, and ask them to translate them into English.

Changing the classroom

Tell the class to have a really careful look at the classroom, because there are going to be some changes.

Divide the class into two. Half the class – let's call them group A – go out of the room. Meanwhile, the other half – group B – make changes to the room. They could, for example, open or close windows, move pictures, books and chairs, or switch lights on or off.

Group A come back in and try to identify what changes have been made, and report them using the present perfect passive e.g.Two windows have been opened, My chair's been moved. If you want to award points, you could give one point for a correctly identified change and one for an accurate sentence.

Groups A and B can now reverse roles.

For obvious reasons, this is only really suitable for small classes, but in larger classes it can be adapted so that sub-groups make changes to parts of the classroom while their classmates turn round and look away.