Vignette: Teaching the Passive Voice
To help students understand sentence structure, some teachers get physical. Here are two ways to dramatize the passive voice.

I stand at one side of the room and throw my keys on the floor, telling the class to make me a sentence about what I just did and to begin the sentence with my name. I always get “Ms. Van Goor threw her keys on the floor.” I smile and write the sentence on the board.
VG: And the subject of the sentence is?
Ms. Van Goor.
VG: Right! And the verb?
Class: Threw.
Right again.
          Now I pick up my keys and do the same thing again, but this time I tell them they must begin the sentence with The keys. It takes only a few minutes longer for them to get “The keys were thrown on the floor by Ms. Van Goor.” I write that sentence on the board also.
VG: And the subject is?
Class: The keys.
VG: Right! And the verb?
Class: (This takes longer, several tries, but eventually someone says it) Were thrown.
VG: Right. Now, in the first sentence, was the subject (I underline the subject once) doing what the verb (I underline the verb twice) described?
Class: Yes.
VG: Was the subject active, doing something?
Class: Yes.
VG: OK, how about the second sentence? Did the subject (I underline it once) do what the verb (I underline it twice) described?
Class: (much more slowly!) No-o-
VG: Was the subject active, doing something?
Class: No-o-.
VG: Or was the subject passive, just sitting there letting something else do something to it?
Class: (very tentatively) Passive?
VG: Yeah. The subject didn't do anything, but somebody or something did something to the subject. I don't know why we call the verb “passive”; it's actually the subject that's sitting there passively letting something happen to it, but that's the way it goes. We say was thrown is a passive verb.
          Another day, I use body diagramming. I call three students up to the front of the room and give them three slips of paper. Written on one is The new outfielder; on another, hit; and on another, the ball. Then I tell these three students to arrange themselves so that they make a sentence and that they must somehow interact with one another in so doing. They do fairly obvious things, the subject usually hitting the verb with enough force to bump the verb into the direct object.

          Then I call three more students up, keeping the first three in place. These three get The ball and was hit and by the new outfielder. I give them the same instructions. It takes the students a few minutes but they usually end up with the subject and verb students out front and the prepositional phrase student a step or two behind them, with a hand holding on to the verb. Then, with both groups of three “acting,” I ask the class to tell me the real difference in what’s going on up there. Someone will eventually get it: that the action goes to the right in one group and to the left in the other. If I then ask them to look only at the verbs in the two sentences and find a difference, someone will eventually notice that the passive verb has two words. And if that class has by then memorized all the do, be, and have verbs, I'll ask what family the helping verb belongs to and wait until someone recognizes the be family.

          If time allows, I get other sets of students up front and ask them to make up their own short sentences with active and passive verbs and rearrange themselves as necessary. We get lots of laughs—and students find out not only how to shift from one voice to the other but also how such shifts affect the meaning and flow of the sentence and how indispensable the be verb and the past participle are.

—Wanda Van Goor

From Haussamen, Brock et al. Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers (NCTE, 2003), pp. 29-32.