5 Simple Steps to Teaching the Passive Voice

5 Simple Steps to Teaching the Passive Voice

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 26,489 views |

Write in the active voice. We have heard it from our teachers time and time again, and we have taught it nearly as much.

But as much as our writing teachers seem to hate the passive voice, reality shows us something different. English speakers use the passive voice construction without a thought, both in speaking and in writing, and that’s why it’s so important to teach the passive construction to ESL students. If you are ready to teach the passive voice to your students, here are five simple steps how to do it.

How to Teach the Passive Voice: 5 Simple Steps

  1. 1

    STEP 1: Recognizing the Active Structure

    Not all sentences can be changed to the passive voice. Only an active voice sentence with a direct object can be made passive. Your students will have to learn to recognize active structures with direct objects before they can restructure these sentences into the passive voice. In English, the subject always comes first in the sentence (with some exceptions that we will not address here). After that is the verb which is sometimes followed by a direct object and/or an indirect object. Active sentences that have a subject, verb, and direct object can be restructured using the passive voice. The direct object is essential because it becomes the subject of the passive sentence, so if an active sentence does not have a direct object, it cannot be restructured in the passive voice.

    To practice determining if an active sentence can be made into a passive sentence, review the parts of a sentence with your students. Give them several examples both with and without direct objects. Be sure that everyone can identify the direct object before moving on to STEP 2.

  2. 2

    STEP 2: Make the Object the Subject

    Restructuring the active to the passive includes two major changes in a sentence’s structure. The first is taking the direct object of the active verb/sentence and making it the subject of the passive sentence. Once your students can correctly identify the direct object in an active sentence, they should be able to easily determine the subject of the passive sentence.

  3. 3

    STEP 3: Changing the Verb

    When changing an active sentence to a passive sentence, the tense of the verb changes. Every passive sentence contains a “be” verb. To change an active verb to a passive verb, use the correct form of “be” and the past participle of the original active verb. For example, eat becomes is eaten. Give becomes was given. You can find a summary of the tense changes when forming the passive from the active on slideshare.net. Let your students practice changing active verbs to passive verbs in various tenses and using them with the correct passive subject.

  4. 4

    STEP 4: When the Subject Remains

    If a speaker or writer wants to include the noun performing the action (the subject in the active sentence) in a passive construction, they must include it in a “by” phrase after the passive verb. The original subject becomes the object of the prepositional phrase, and it comes after the passive verb. Take this active sentence, for example. “George Orwell wrote 1984.” George Orwell is the subject (performing the action of writing). In the passive sentence, 1984 was written by George Orwell, this subject appears in a “by” phrase after the main verb. The by phrase is optional in the passive sentence though in this case the information (the author’s name) is important and should be included.

  5. 5

    STEP 5: When to Use the Passive

    Though we are usually told to use active sentences, there are times when using the passive is actually more logical. In active sentences, both the one performing the action (the subject of the active verb) and the recipient of the action (the direct object of the active verb) are important. Passive sentences are different. Using a passive sentence makes sense when the noun performing the action is not important. For example, “The test was administered.” (It doesn’t matter who administered the test.) Also, if a person does not know who performed the action, the passive is the construction to use. “My purse was stolen.” (We do not know who stole the purse.) A third reason to use the passive voice is that the one performing the action is obvious. “She was fired.” (She could only be fired by her boss.)

Try These Passive Voice Exercises

Now that you have taught your students how to form the passive voice from an active sentence, give them some practice doing it.

Start by giving your students ten sentences written in the active voice, such as the following.

  • Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.
  • My mom baked a cake for my birthday.
  • Our mail carrier brought the mail to the front door.
  • The librarian always recommends great books.
  • Janie plays cards with a full deck.
  • They include appetizers at that restaurant.

Now have your students change these sentences from the active to the passive omitting the original subject.

  • America was discovered in 1492.
  • Our mail was brought to the front door.
  • Appetizers are included at that restaurant.

To practice using “by” phrases in the passive voice, give your students ten simple passive sentences that do not contain a “by” phrase. Ask have students work individually or in pairs to read each sentence and then add a logical “by” phrase after the passive verb. You can use the following sentences or other similar ones.

  • The money was found.
  • The law was passed.
  • The man was arrested.
  • The girl was dumped.
  • The cat was rescued.
  • I was fired.
  • You were scolded.
  • We were rewarded.
  • Jackie was told many times.
  • The newspaper was delivered.

The modified sentences might look like the following.

  • The money was found by the boy.
  • The law was passed by Congress.
  • Jackie was told many times by her mother.

Once students have added their “by” phrases, have them change these passive sentences back into active sentences using the object of their by phrase as the subject of the active sentence. For example,

  • The boy found the money.
  • Congress passed the law.
  • Her mother told Jackie many times.

Learning the passive voice is important for ESL students, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

If you take it step by step and give your students practice at each point, they will be comfortable reading, writing, and hearing the passive voice.

Do you have any great tips for teaching the passive voice? Share them in the comments below!

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