Teaching the passive voice went from not on my radar to one of my favorite things to teach!
When I first started teaching adult ESL, I didn’t even know what active versus passive voice was! I used both voices in speech and writing, but I didn’t know what they were called, and I certainly couldn’t answer anyone’s questions about them! While reviewing what I would need to teach for an upcoming grammar class, I saw I’d be teaching about the passive voice, realized I had no clue what it was and started studying. And all sorts of lightbulbs clicked on.
I remembered those times when students asked where the subject of a sentence was, and I would look and immediately get hung up on my usual explanation, “See this word? You know it’s the subject because it does the verb’s action.” (Yeah, linking verbs also threw me.) Obviously, though not to me, the subject wasn’t doing the action because it was a passive sentence, rendering my explanation useless. (I had had a less than stellar education up to that point.)
And frankly, once I learned the difference, I wasn’t sold on the need to teach it to my students because the grammar books I was reading all preached the same WRONG thing–that passive was inherently inferior to active. Heck, many (most? all?) online grammar checkers out there will consistently mark every passive sentence as a problem and prompt you to change it to active. But that’s wrong.
Passive is absolutely necessary, and it’s best if our students know not just the grammatical difference but also the pertinent purposes of passive. Here’s why:
5 Pressing Premises for Teaching the Passive Voice Construction
Grammar Awareness: I realize a little voice just said, “DUH” in your head. Sorry about that. However, grammar awareness IS a primary reason. Think about it–while teaching the passive voice, we provide an opportunity to reinforce broader grammatical concepts. I think of it as giving a mouse a cookie. In that story, giving a mouse one thing leads to the mouse wanting something else, and that leads to yet another thing, and so on. Grammar explanations can sometimes be the same way, right?
Once students get to the level where they are learning about passive constructions and find out that the subject doesn’t always do the action of the verb, they want to know why. They want to know the rules, and they want to know the exceptions. And they’ll probably ask, “But what if it’s like this….?”
Teaching the passive voice gives your adult ESL students insights into sentence structure, verb forms, and word order, which contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of English grammar.
Exam Preparedness: Many standardized tests, both academic and professional, assess a student’s ability to manipulate the active and passive voice. That right there is sometimes all the reason a TOEFL-obsessed student needs to hear to have buy-in. This might still be a relevant reason for those with goals outside of or beyond such tests. Equipping your students with the skill to manipulate the active and passive voice will help them perform well in exams and prepare them for future academic and professional endeavors.
This will make even more sense when we get to the section on prioritizing the passive over the active.
Real-world Application: All right, so I did make it to my 30s without really knowing what the active and passive voices were, so that’s proof that there isn’t a real-world application outside of teaching a grammar class, right? WRONG. Understanding when to use the active or passive can be crucial in professional settings.
So, when you teach this concept, you are preparing your adult ESL students for real-world communication situations, such as writing reports or emails or participating in discussions where a precise choice of voice can impact the message’s reception.
Language Proficiency: Sure, this is somewhat similar to the grammar awareness reason, but if you have grammar-phobes, perhaps emphasize this with them instead. The thing is, a mastery of active and passive voice contributes to overall language proficiency. Focusing on one and leaving out the other is a crying shame because teaching the passive voice will enhance your students’ ability to express themselves accurately, coherently, and appropriately in diverse contexts.
- Communication Skills: Teaching the passive voice helps students express themselves more effectively. When they understand it, they can choose the appropriate voice based on the context and their communicative goals. Of course, this also means that they can hear the underlying messages better in what they hear. There is a huge difference between a leader saying, “I made a mistake,” and one who says, “Mistakes were made.” Obviously, this skill is essential for precise and accurate communication in English because there’s what we say, and then there’s what we don’t explicitly say.
- Reading Comprehension: I think there may be an overemphasis on the active voice because teaching the passive voice during grammar classes, which fall under the language arts umbrella, is done in the context of “don’t write like this.” You’ll see a lot more active voice construction in literature, which can lead those teaching language arts to conclude that it’s better. Indeed, switch many of the sentences you find in great literary stories from active to passive, and the message becomes rather blah or ridiculously confusing.
However, many texts, especially academic and professional ones, are written in the passive voice. When students learn how to recognize and understand passive constructions, they enhance their reading comprehension skills. This is particularly important for academic success, as students will encounter a wide range of texts in various styles and registers. They’re not all going to major in English literature, after all, or work in fields that require literary skills.
- Writing Proficiency: Teaching the passive voice gives a gift of greater flexibility and control over their writing to our students. Switching from active to passive or vice versa enables them to vary sentence structures, which is imperative for maintaining reader interest. Plus, they’ll need to understand the passive voice for certain formal writing contexts, such as scientific or technical reports.
Critical Thinking: Analyzing and producing sentences in both active and passive voice requires students to think critically about language use. This goes beyond rote memorization of grammar rules. While teaching the passive voice, involve your adult ESL students in carefully examining how language functions in different contexts. Prompt them into looking deep into the intricacies of sentence structure, understanding the subtle nuances of meaning, emphasis, and tone associated with each voice. Truly, teaching the passive voice encourages a deeper understanding of the language and promotes higher-order thinking skills.
Teaching the passive voice helps guide your students beyond surface-level comprehension so they can begin to appreciate the intricacies and flexibility of language.
All of that is to say that teaching the passive voice helps your adult ESL students improve their overall language proficiency, make their communication skills more effective, and find greater success in academic and professional settings.
3 Points for Prioritizing the Passive Voice Over Active
I’m sure there would be thousands of grammar teachers turning over in their graves if they read that title just above, but active voice is NOT always the better choice. Sure, sure, I know it is often preferred for its clarity and directness. Passive constructions are almost always convoluted when active voice is the better choice, but there are situations where the passive voice is acceptable and preferable. Truly.
And this is why understanding when to use the passive voice helps adult ESL students become more versatile and effective communicators. Don’t believe me? Keep reading. I’ll convince you.
Emphasize the Action, not the Doer (who might be unknown or irrelevant
The passive voice is used in situations where the emphasis is on the action or result rather than the person performing the action. (Kind of like the sentence immediately before this one.) Explain to students that this is common in the following contexts:
in scientific writing, where the focus is on processes or results rather than on who conducted the experiment or policies when the policy is the focus, not who wrote it
- The original study’s outcomes couldn’t be reproduced. Exactly who was involved in trying to reproduce the study’s outcomes? Their names aren’t important–the results of the efforts to reproduce the outcomes are.
- The new policy was implemented last week. Who implemented this policy? That’s not what is important. We don’t need to know. All we need to know is that the new policy was implemented last week, and we need to follow it.
when the doer of the action is unknown, irrelevant, or intentionally omitted (like in crime reports) from the sentence, keeping the focus on the action or the result.
- I can’t make it to work today. My catalytic converter was stolen. Who stole it? We don’t know. All we know is that it’s gone, and now we’re going to miss work, have to contact the police, and ultimately shell out a lot of money to get that replaced. By saying “My catalytic converter was stolen,” we’re putting the problem front and center, not the unknown thief.
- She was allegedly robbed between 3 and 4 am. Who committed the robbery? Well, that could be unknown, or it could be intentionally withheld information because the investigation is still going on. Since there is zero information on the perpetrator, keeping the focus on the robbery just makes sense.
Be Formal and Show Some Objectivity
Teaching the passive voice helps students with formal or academic writing because the passive voice is often used to create a sense of objectivity and remove the writer’s personal presence. The passive voice is appropriate when discussing general truths or presenting information without attributing it to oneself or a specific person. It can be seen/heard in journalism and this paragraph’s first and last sentences.
- This approach is considered effective.
- The significance of the research is widely recognized.
- It is universally accepted that health is improved through exercise.
- It has been determined that there is a high demand in the market.
- The occurrence has been observed in various situations.
- Consistency is found in the study’s results.
Refrain from Finger-Pointing: Softening & Deflecting Blame or Responsibility
Teaching the passive voice can help students soften or even deflect the impact of negative information or distribute responsibility more broadly. This is often especially desired in professional or diplomatic contexts. Consider the difference in these two sentence pairs:
The manager forgot to submit the report on time. Here, someone has thrown the manager under the bus by explicitly identifying who is at fault for a late report.
The report wasn’t submitted on time. With passive, the issue is acknowledged without blaming anyone specifically.
We didn’t do it because it’s not within the scope of our job description. The active voice makes us sound almost defensive in this sentence because we are front and center as the subject of the sentence.
The task wasn’t completed because it’s not within the scope of our job description. The passive allows us to keep the focus on the incomplete task without drawing attention to or placing responsibility on anyone.
While we might generally prefer the active voice for its directness and clarity, the passive voice serves a purpose in specific contexts. Teaching the passive voice so students know when and how to use it empowers them to make strategic choices in their writing, adapting to different rhetorical situations and audiences. It’s not about avoiding the passive voice altogether but understanding its nuances and using it judiciously for effective communication.
In conclusion, there are five compelling premises for teaching the passive voice, from bolstering grammar awareness and exam preparedness to real-world applications and enhanced language proficiency. Teaching the passive voice helps our students understand the nuanced benefits of this often maligned voice and prepares them for academic and professional success. The passive construction has its merits and allows us to be more precise (or deliberately imprecise). It’s not just about teaching the passive voice; it’s about equipping adult ESL students with a versatile and strategic command of language and contributing to their overall language proficiency and communicative effectiveness.
Ready to go resources for teaching active & passive
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