Escaping the active/passive conundrum

I have always struggled with whether to explain the relationship between active and passive verbs. My students seem to understand the formula, but they still struggle when it comes to meaning. Lately, I’ve been trying to focus more on providing examples of the passive in a natural context. In addition, I’ve been trying to focus them more on meaning and use. The downloadable activities model correct use of the passive but require students to participate in meaning making, in this case using the past passive for storytelling.


Getting Your Students to Use Passives in a Common Context

Some of the most natural contexts for passives are in reports—police reports, insurance claims, lab-experiment reports, etc.  In reporting what happened, the writer or the speaker may not know who or what caused a situation. They only know what happened. Have your students generate a real report, and see how many passives they naturally use.



  1. Divide students into teams of 3 or 4 students each.
  2. Assign each team to bring to class a pillowcase, medium-sized box, or some other container full of little things from home.  The objects can be anything—picture frames, tennis balls, cell-phone chargers, whatever.
  3. Pair each team with another. These two teams will challenge each other to write / deliver orally the most complete report.
  4. Team A arranges its objects on a table or on the floor. Any arrangement is fine. Team A studies its arrangement, trying to fix in memory as many aspects of the arrangement as possible. TEAM A MAY NOT TAKE A PICTURE OF THE ARRANGEMNET. Team A then leaves the room or otherwise goes to a place where they can’t see what happens to their arrangement.
  5. Team B arrives. Before touching anything, they take a picture (probably with a cell phone) of Team A’s arrangement.
  6. Team B then moves / removes / adds to / inverts / or otherwise tampers with a certain number of objects (perhaps 10 or 12) in Team A’s arrangement. Team B then takes a picture of the re-arranged scene.
  7. Team A returns and tries to list—in a full sentence with a passive verb, if possible—every change made by Team B.
  8. The teams reverse roles.
  9. When both lists of sentences are complete, each team reports to the other. The team receiving the report compares pictures to see if the reporting team got everything. The receiving team also underlines every passive verb in the report.

Click here to download the activity sheet.