The passive voice – English grammar for ESL students

I’ve been teaching English grammar to ESL students for over 6 years now, and one the topics they often find difficult is the passive voice.

This is probably because a lot of the textbooks overwhelm students with hundreds of examples and huge gap-fills where they have to decide if they should use active or passive sentences.

There’s definite value for this, but I think it’s also important to have a streamlined, more accessible version.

In class, I’ll follow this plan:

Why do we use the passive voice?

  1. To sound serious/formal
  2. To focus on the object instead of the subject
  3. If we don’t know the subject of the sentence

How do we make passive sentences?

Use object + be + past participle + (by subject).

For example:

Object “Be” Past participle (by subject)
The bike was stolen by somebody

To change the tense, change “be”. Everything else stays the same.

Tense Object “Be” stolen (by subject)
Past simple His bike was stolen (by somebody)
Present continuous His bike is being stolen (by somebody)
Present perfect His bike has been stolen (by somebody)

Compare active and passive sentences

Passives structure

After this, students practise by writing their own sentences and then doing a speaking exercise. I’ve found that it works pretty well.

Has anyone else got experience of either teaching or learning the passive voice in an ESL classroom? How did you find it? Have you found any other topics which students often struggle with?


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