Choosing the Best Verb: An Active and Passive Voice Minilesson

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
50 minutes
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For most students, speech and informal writing flows naturally. When it comes to more formal writing, however, students frequently choose passive voice constructions because to them, the verbs sound more academic or more formal. This minilesson explores verb choice in a variety of online resources then encourages students to draw conclusions about verb use. They then explore the pieces they are writing, check for active and passive voice, and make necessary revisions.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Grammar comes naturally as humans acquire language. When it comes time to write a formal paper, however, a student writer's concern for formal, "proper" language can result in stilted, awkward constructions. As Brock Haussamen et al. explain in Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers, "it is not language itself that is the crucial issue here; it is people, and the match between the language they use and the circumstances they find themselves in. Language is 'correct' or 'incorrect' depending on the circumstances. For adults as well as children, speaking in formal Edited Written English when you are joking around with your family is as out of place as writing a job application that includes instant messaging abbreviations" (11).

Inviting writers to discover the relationship between the actor (or subject) and the action (or predicate) in passive and active voice can provide students with more details on how the constructions work, better enabling students to choose the best language for their writing situation.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Materials and Technology

Internet Access




  • Based on computer availability, decide how you want students to complete the assignment. This assignment works best when completed individually, but it can also work well in pairs or groups of three.

  • Familiarize yourself with the Websites students will analyze. You might make bookmarks on the computer browsers for the Websites available for students. Consider the following notes as you choose sites for this activity:

    • Note that many sites include advertisements.

    • Sites can cover issues that may not be appropriate (e.g., coverage of violence on news sites); therefore, you may want to choose specific Web pages for students to explore. For instance, you might direct students to stories on the Mars exploration rather than allowing them to freely choose a site.

    • Choosing several pages on a related topic, from different sources, is a useful way to explore how verb choice differs depending upon the audience and purpose of the writing.

  • Test the Interactive Verb Observation Chart on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

  • (optional) Copy the accompanying reproducible Verb Observation Chart.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • identify verbs in a variety of contexts.

  • analyze verbs to determine whether constructions rely on active or passive voice.

  • draw conclusions about how to match active and passive voice to their writing situation.

  • choose verbs (active or passive) appropriate for the audience and purpose of their writing.

Instruction & Activities

  1. If necessary due to computer availability, divide students into groups.

  2. Provide the basic definitions of active and passive voice, preferably through demonstration, as shown in "Vignette: Teaching the Passive Voice" (from Grammar Alive!).

  3. Once students understand the basic concept, share the Active and Passive Voice Web page from the Purdue OWL and explain the basic characteristics of active and passive voice. Alternatively, you can use information from your class grammar text.

  4. Explain the class activity: students will explore Websites and note the verbs that are used. After collecting a dozen references to verbs in context, students identify whether the verbs are active or passive voice. Explain that after gathering the information students will work in small groups to draw conclusions about when and how the verbs are used. Suggested Websites include:

  5. Hand out Verb Observation Chart, or demonstrate the Interactive Verb Observation Chart, showing students how to add items to the chart as well as how to print and save their work:

    1. On the first screen, type your name and the name of the Website you're examining.

    2. Click Next to move to the chart screen and enter your information.

    3. Enter the details on the site: for the Row label, indicate the title of the page your example came from. In the columns include the subject, the verb, and voice (active or passive).

    4. Demonstrate that writing is not limited to the size of the box shown on screen. Answers will scroll.

    5. When you've finished writing your responses, click Finish at the top of the screen.

    6. In the next window, click Print. Your answers will be displayed in a Web browser window.

    7. To print answers, choose the Print command from the File menu. To save your answers, choose the Save As... command from the File menu. Students can open the file later in a Web editor or a word processor that imports HTML (such as Microsoft Word or AppleWorks).

    8. Show students that the instructions for using the tool are available by clicking Instructions at the top of the screen.

    9. Demonstrate how to move between the chart window and the Web page students are analyzing.

    10. Show students how to copy a sentence from the Web page and paste it into the appropriate row and column on the chart.
  6. Once students understand the activity, share the URLs for the Websites you've chosen for the activity. Depending upon the amount of time spent defining the terms and introducing the activity, you may choose to have students explore Websites at home or complete the following steps during the next class session.

  7. Monitor students as they browse the Websites, answering any questions.

  8. Once students have identified twelve verbs from the page(s) they're exploring, divide students into small groups to explore their findings.

  9. Ask students to share their findings and use the collected information to draw conclusions about when writers choose active voice and when they use passive voice.

  10. After you're satisfied that students have had enough time to explore their findings, gather as a group and ask students to share their conclusions. Ask students to support their conclusions with specific details from the sites. Look at the sites as a group if desired.

  11. Once the minilesson is complete, ask students to explore the pieces that they are writing, checking for active and passive voice. Ask them to revise as necessary, based on whether the verbs are appropriate for the particular sentence. Students may work during their in-class writing time or complete the revisions as homework.


  • Invite students to search for examples of passive voice in environmental literature (texts they find in their community or see and read every day). You might encourage students to check billboards, newsletters, church bulletins, pamphlets, and brochures that they find in their daily activities. Some texts will rely almost exclusively on active voice, such as instructions for shipping overnight packages in a brochure at the post office. It's likely that students will find some examples of passive voice, however, if they are observant. Passive voice is frequently used in park brochures, for instance (e.g., the rock paintings were discovered by settlers in the 1850s; . . . They were probably created by Native Americans for religious ceremonies). Take advantage of the opportunity to explore why a writer has chosen active over passive voice, and vice versa.

  • Students can explore a collection of documents that show how style changes over time. Ask students to compare the use of active and passive voice in historical documents (primary and secondary). As they explore the reasons for the verb choice in documents, you can explore the ways that changing social and cultural attitudes can affect the way that a sentence is written (Are passive sentences more likely to be used to distance a group from responsibility for an action?).

  • Comparative document study can provide interesting insight on the use of active and passive voice. Numerous online collections can provide a group of documents on the same topic with differing perspectives, including Hot Paper Topics: School Vouchers and School Choice, from St. Ambrose University's O'Keefe Library, Investigative Reporters and Editors' In the News, and the African American Odyssey from the Library of Congress. Connect the exploration to genre study by considering how the genre combines with the audience and purpose to influence the choices in the document.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Monitor student progress during the minilesson and as students work on their own drafts through anecdotal notetaking and kidwatching.

  • Ask students to share their revised writing with the class and comment on the details they've added. You might ask students to share "before" and "after" passages to make the revisions more dramatic.

  • Comment on the changes to student passages by responding in writing or during individual or group conferences.

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