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How to Teach Present Simple Passive
The passive voice is a complex area of grammar that students often struggle with. Teachers and coursebooks often tend to focus far more on form than on meaning and use, meaning that students end up being able to transform sentences between passive and active. However, students tend to fare poorly in using the passive voice, choosing to use the active whenever possible, even though this may sound unnatural.
When to Teach
The passive voice is typically introduced at late pre-intermediate with the present simple. Often the present simple passive is followed up in quick succession with the past simple passive. Prior to introduction, it is recommended that students are exposed to examples of the passive. Further, lower level students can still be taught passive verbs as chunks (e.g. to be paid).
Most English sentences use the active voice in which the “agent” or “doer” of the verb is the subject. For example in the sentence “students complete homework”, the subject (students) does the verb (to complete). In the passive voice, the “patient” or “recipient” of the verb is made the subject. Thus the previous example becomes “homework is completed by students”.
Using the passive voice allows the patient to be fronted and therefore show its importance. The agent can still be mentioned in the sentence, though is often omitted because it is unimportant (e.g. my car is insured). This might be because the agent is obvious (e.g. every year more than 10 million arrests are made in the United States), or unknown (e.g. this blog is viewed several times a day).
The form for the present simple passive is:
subject + am/is/are + past participle
The negative form is made by adding “not”, i.e.:
subject + am/is/are + not + past participle
Questions are made by inverting the subject and to be:
am/is/are + subject + past participle
Common mistakes students make with pronunciation in the passive voice include:
- failing to hear the verb to be particularly in contracted forms e.g. it‘s.
- failing to use the correct /t/, /d/ or /ɪd/ -ed ending in regular past participles.
Problems for Students
Although passive constructions may exist in their L1, students often find the passive difficult in English. For one reason, such constructions may be achieved in different ways such as using a different case, conjugation or affixation. This can therefore lead to difficulties in forming the passive.
For other students, the form itself may not present many difficulties. However, students often avoid using the passive, seeing it as an optional variant of the active voice. This may not be helped by teachers solely using transformation exercises which may help with the form but do not help students to decide whether to use the active or passive. Students are further frustrated where both variants are grammatically possible. As such it can appear to students that correct passive usage is arbitrary and inconsistent.
Students are sometimes given the impression that the passive voice is only used in writing. While it may occur more frequently in writing, students should be given the opportunity to produce the passive orally as it does occur naturally in speech.
The present simple passive lends itself to talking about products that are produced in different countries or by different companies. For example “rice is grown in China, cars are manufactured in Brazil, the iPhone is made by Apple”. Similarly, the passive can be introduced with materials such as wood, leather, cotton, etc. by considering what things are made from. Man-made processes are also a rich source of the present simple passive (and a necessity for IELTS students). In making chocolate for example we might find sentences such as “cocoa beans are harvested, the beans are transported, etc”. Man-made processes can also include recipes. This can be a motivating topic with the huge number of high quality and attractive cooking videos on sites like Youtube. How about the one below for a quick chicken biryani – delicious!
There are many ways you could introduce the present simple passive using the contexts above. Here are just a few ideas:
Hold up your mobile phone (if it’s embarrassingly ancient, all the better!). Ask your students what they can tell you about your phone (e.g. S: It’s a Nokia. T: Great. Where do they come from? S: Finland). This should produce the building blocks with which students will try to make an active sentence e.g. “Finland makes Nokia”. This gives you an opportunity to provide the correct language which students can then apply to their phones and other items.
After introducing different material words, you can elicit things which are made of the various materials. This could be a brainstorming exercise in which groups try to think of as many ideas as possible. These then provide the components for “x is/are made from y” sentences.
Providing a diagram of a man-made process and asking students to interpret the picture will provide a need for the passive. It may be necessary to teach students some of the more technical vocabulary required. Showing Youtube videos of the process (such as those here) can help students to better understand the process they are describing. Making chocolate seems to be popular with teachers:
I’m made of wood or metal; I’m used for sitting; What am I?Hopefully you got the correct answer! Check at the bottom of this post if you’re not sure.
Conversations and Debates
As a topic for debate, students could be asked to prepare lists of things which are done by men, women or both. With lower level groups this could take the form of a quiz in which students tick what they think for items such as “washing up”. It is important to emphasise that students should focus on what they think happens, rather than what they think should happen, as this is the basis for the debate. If possible, finding survey data for comparison may add interest.
Students could also list cultural observations about various places they know or have visited e.g. “bagpipes are played in Scotland” or “Diwali is celebrated in India”. These may provide a springboard to a conversation, or form the basis for a quiz by students adding several wrong answers e.g. “Diwali is celebrated in a.) India, b.) Jamaica c.) South Korea (while Diwali might be celebrated in Jamaica and Korea, it is clear that India is the best answer).
Conversations and debates can be particularly useful once students have got the form. With many activities students produce the passive because they are told it is the purpose of the activity. In a conversation, students need to make decisions about using the active or passive. However, conversations should be geared towards topics that encourage the use of the passive.
When teaching the passive in the context of man-made processes, it makes sense to practice by using processes too. There are many ways a process can be adapted for productive use.
A process diagram could be turned into an information gap by removing some of the parts from it, so that students have different parts of the process to describe, draw and annotate the process diagram.
An information gap can also be created by half of the students watching a video of a process with no sound while describing what they see to a student who is facing away. This student can be given a table or diagram to complete. Students can switch part way through or for different processes.
IELTS students (taking the academic version) may be asked to describe a process in writing task one. For these students, providing plenty of opportunities to write about such processes will be valuable.
Songs can be a great source of language input. Because listening is enjoyable (subject to taste), students often don’t mind listening to songs repeatedly. Therefore they come to know the lyrics, which if containing clear examples of a language point, provide memorable examples for students. The following songs contain present simple passive examples:
Don’t Miss A Thing!
Answer to riddle: A chair