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Active and passive voice in the classroom

This SATS year (2022) saw three questions on the active passive voice - testing not only children’s ability to recognise and change voice but explain its impact.

Before we take a deeper look at the three questions, let’s first ask ourselves, why do we teach active and passive voice and how can we teach it purposefully?

Why do we use active and passive voice?

Clarity. Ah, that word which pops up so often in writing. But surely that’s what we are teaching the children to do - write clearly? Active voice provides us the opportunity to do so by naming the subject acting on the object. Passive voice, on the other hand, can help avoid repetition whilst not making it clear who is taking action in the sentence.

How can I teach this within writing?

Generally, children are well versed at writing in the active voice; they are taught from a young age to include subject and object in a complete sentence. “The man ran.”

Below are some examples from some ‘early readers‘. As you can see, it is clear who is acting in each sentence.

In the classroom, active voice can be practised and applied across all genres. Activities around sentence construction and vocabulary gathering can provide ample opportunity for children to talk and write in the active voice.

Passive, on the other hand, is spoken about and read less. Widely regarded as lengthy, slow to read and ambiguous, authors often chose to write in the active - particularly in children’s texts. So how can we introduce passive voice within our schools?

A perfect genre to explore passive voice within the classroom would be suspense.

“The window was broken.” The passive voice leaves us asking how and who? Rather than being told who broke the window and how, our imaginations are left to run wild. This use of the passive can often be taught and used by children to produce atmospheres oozing with suspense and mystery. “A screech was heard.” A screech from who? Heard by who?

Alternatively, writing about an unsolved crime either through a narrative, diary or newspaper, is equallly effective. “The bank had been robbed.” In this sentence, the identity of the robber remains unknown. Or, “many people were injured.” Here the emphasis is on the action, ‘were injured’, whilst the people remain undefined.

Why not take some newspapers into the classroom and get children to identify the passive themselves before moving on to write their own piece?

Examples of passive voice from literature which can be used in the classroom.

Adams begins the sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by saying:

The story so far:

In the beginning the Universe was created.

This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

Ask the children to identify the verb - created. Then ask, who created the Universe in this story? They will quickly realise that the author hasn’t made this clear. “People have regarded it as a bad move.” Can the class identify this use of the passive? Again, who are these people?

Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by Maya Angelou provides an opportunity to explore passive voice within poetry.

“Her bones were found round thirty years later when they razed her building to put up a parking lot.”

The underlined phrase provides an example of a short passive voice construction: one similar to that seen in SATs papers. Here we can ask, ’what don’t we know?’ The answer being, who found her bones?

Lastly, an eery examples from Sidney Sheldon’s The Master Of The Game.

“The large ballroom was crowded with familiar ghosts come to help celebrate her birthday… Earlier, dinner had been served outdoors. The large and formal garden had been festively decorated with lanterns and ribbons and balloons. Their corpses had been perfectly preserved by the ammonia in the air, and their hair had turned a bright red.

This paragraph, seeped in passive voice and written using the past perfect tense, is perfect to use not only for active passive voice, but for atmosphere and imagery. The use of ‘ghosts’ and ‘corpses’ creating a sense of danger.

In this extract, we do not know who crowded the ballroom, served the dinner or decorated the garden. Whose house are we reading about?

What we saw in the 2022 SATs paper.

The first question posed the opportunity for children to demonstrate their understanding of the passive voice.

Here we can see how incorporating the passive into writing and exploring it in published texts, can help children develop a deeper understanding of the purpose.

“I remember using the passive when we wrote spooky stories. We used it so the reader didn’t know who was making the noise!”

Now, children may have deduced the answer by recognising that ‘Max’ was missing from the second sentence and therefore we do not know who dropped the bucket. However, a child with a deeper understanding may be able to make links across their schema to their word classes and sentence construction. These children will recognise how the subject and tense has changed.

The second question asked the children to rewrite a sentence in the active. This task is one which, I’m sure, all Year Six teachers will have practised in their classrooms. Children will have been reminded to remember their capital letters and full stops before the test began and teachers will be keeping their fingers crossed that all proper nouns have capital letters too.

A child who may have hit a brick wall when faced with this question, could have looked back at question 29 and saw that ‘Max dropped the red bucket’. They may draw from this that ‘the person’ needs to go first in the sentence followed by the action. Leading to the answer, ‘Bill fed the dog’.

A child with deeper understanding, will recognise that the subject of the sentence needs to change. Although in the passive, we know that the dog was fed by Bill. Bill now needs to become to subject and will be moved to the beginning.

No tense changes need to be made.

The last question saw the reverse - writing in the passive.

Again, question 29 could have provided support. ‘The red bucket was dropped.’ From this, children can recognise that the passive begins with a noun phrase followed by the verb.

This leads to the answer ‘The vegetables grew.’ However, we know in this sentence what grew. Where is the mystery?

The challenge here comes in the change of verb form from grew to grown. ‘The vegetables were grown’ gives us the opportunity to ask the oh-so-important question of ‘by who’?

I’m eager to see the mark scheme, once released, to find out will ‘The vegetables were grown’ suffice or will children be expected to make reference to ‘the children’?

‘The vegetables were grown by the children.’

What have we learnt from these questions?

Year Six classes are generally well rehearsed in changing sentences between active and passive voice but how much time is given over to purpose?

Does question 29 suggest that children, in future tests, may need to do more reasoning around purpose? Will they be given the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of a term as well as apply it?

Our resources will be adapted for the academic year 2022-2023 to ensure that more time is given over to the purpose of grammatical features and their use in published writing. We will also continue to prove examples and suggested opportunities for writing.

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Dec 26, 2023

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