How to Teach the Passive Voice

I’m writing this for an English teacher in France. I’ve never met her and I’ve decided not to ask her name, but one of her students is coming to me for private lessons. « Pierre » is in the seventh grade, which, officially, in France would be his second year of English lessons. But in France English is often taught much earlier as an « extra ». If the primary school programs are successful, some students reach the seventh grade with a fairly good level of English comprehension.
When his mother approached me, I explained that I would not be following the school program, but would focus on helping him to better understand spoken and written English, and that she might not see an immediate improvement in his grades. If I realized my goal of making English comprehensible, he would understand the texts and videos presented by his school teacher and the rest would be easy.

The first lesson went well. I used the first chapter of The Arrival by Shaun Tan to ascertain that « Pierre » had a very limited vocabulary. Then I showed him the sequence from the movie The Thirteenth Warrior where a ninth century Arab finds himself travelling with Nordic warriors whose language he does not speak or understand. After days and weeks and months of listening to them, he speaks to them in their own language. They are astonished and angry, believing he was a spy. One shouts at him, « Where did you learn our language? » He replies, « I listened. » I then explained to « Pierre » that all I’ll ask him to do is to listen, to listen and read short texts with my help. He seemed content.

His mother came with him to the next lesson and brought a dozen pages of exercises he had been assigned to do during the holidays. She explained that Pierre didn’t know how to do them and, although she herself speaks some English, she didn’t know how to help him. I said I’d look at them and I let her go.
Then Pierre and I sat down and looked at the exercises. And I was horrified. It’s true that I « retired » ten years ago, but at that time a student in Pierre’s class was not expected to be able to use much more than the present tense, a few modals and the simple past tense. His teacher had given grammatical exercises in far more advanced forms, including the passive voice. I was horrified and Pierre was disheartened and his mother was discouraged.

What is the passive voice?

I was horrified and Pierre was disheartened and his mother was discouraged. is written in the Passive Voice. The teacher’s exercises horrified me, disheartened Pierre and discouraged his mother. I wrote that sentence in the Active Voice. I discussed this with an intelligent, fairly well-educated French friend and I had to explain to them what the passive voice was. It is used even less in French than in English. When I myself was still teaching grammar in the lycée, with students who were in their 5th year of English as a foreign language, the textbooks introduced the passive voice as a new concept, not expecting it to have been previously acquired. I myself am a closet grammarian, though I hope some day to be cured. I love the geometric beauty of the Passive Voice. I used to draw schemas on the board for my students. Some of my colleagues came to my room to copy them. I explained how to switch from Active to Passive and from Passive to Active. I gave my students exercises to do and we studied the Prologue of the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, which is all in the Passive Voice. There was a time when one of my colleagues referred to me as « the Queen of the Passive Voice ».

My students passed my test on the Passive Voice with excellent results. And immediately forgot it as our textbook moved on to another fascinating complication of English grammar. My students were good students, very good at Learning. And also very good at forgetting so they could learn more stuff and pass more tests.

I have an image from that time that has stuck with me. A young British university student was working with me as a Teacher’s Assistant. He was studying to be a lawyer, a very bright, pleasant boy who qualified for a program that furnished us with native speakers who could converse with our students. I asked him to chat with a small group of students, manipulating the conversation in such a way that they would be using the Passive Voice. He stared at me, a look of horror on his face. That’s the image that I have retained almost twenty years later. Then he confessed, « I don’t know what the passive voice is. » At the time it amused me, because of course he used the passive voice and understood it when he heard it or read it. He had Acquired the form as a child. He just had not Learned to talk about it, to isolate and dissect it and talk about Agents and Objects and Auxiliaries. Today I wonder why we expect French teenagers to be able to do something that a rather successful British university student had never needed to practice.

A few years later I discovered Dr. Stephen Krashen and realized that Acquisition is something very different from Learning. I stopped using my diagrams and explanations. I stopped asking my students to do exercises and I stopped testing them on the Passive Voice. I continued showing them the Prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring. I asked them questions about the story.

« How many rings were given to the Elves?

How many rings were given to the Dwarfs?

How many rings were given to the kings of men?

Where was the master ring made?

Who was defeated?

What was forgotten?

My last year in the lycée, I had no classes, due to a strange quirk in the educational system. I was expected to replace my colleagues when they were ill and they were all exceptionally healthy that year. So, I asked them to give me the students that were giving them nightmares, their troublemakers. In this manner they were able to sanitize some of their classes and I had small groups of five or six students who were glad to get out of a class they were failing.

We watched The Fellowship of the Ring, translating the English subtitles and talking about the story. We moved on past the Prologue and a month or so later we were discussing why Gandalf could not use the ring against Sauron. I had the question « Who was the ring made by ? » on my lips, but my little grammarian brain woke up and peevishly told me it had been a while since they had heard the Passive Voice and they might not understand my question. So I asked, « Who made the ring? » « The ring was made by Sauron, » said a young man who had been sent to me because he was failing English. Not only did he use the Passive Voice, but he used it spontaneously in a highly suitable context where we were talking about the ring rather than about Sauron. I was delighted of course and told the class secretary, who kept track of student participation, to give the speaker five points, whereas normally answering or asking a question was worth one. « Why ? » asked the secretary. « What did he do ? » « He used the Passive Voice. » « He doesn’t even know what it is. » « It doesn’t matter. He used it correctly and appropriately. »

All this is a message to Pierre’s teacher, who will probably never read it. But if you teach English as a foreign language, or any foreign language, and are tempted to give your students grammatical exercises, please reflect on the difference between my brilliant former students, who Learned about the Passive Voice and my later, not so brilliant students who Acquired it and were able to use it spontaneously without knowing what it was.
Is our goal as language teachers to have our students Learn how to transform an active phrase to a passive structure, how to talk about Agents and Auxiliaries, etc? Or is our goal to help them Acquire the ability to talk about things that genuinely interest them?

Although I myself find grammatical intricacies beautiful, few adolescents do. They are far more interested in the films that Hollywood is so skilled at making enthralling. Showing them films and talking about films is a fairly easy way of getting them to use authentic language in a genuine conversation. Let us not forget that it’s possible to graduate from Oxford University and become a successful lawyer without even knowing what the passive voice is.

So, how do you teach the Passive Voice? You don’t.

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