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Active and Passive Voice

What is active and passive voice?

The active or passive voice refers to the type of verb form used in a sentence. The term 'voice' can help children understand that these different verb forms are typically used to communicate in different styles.

The active voice is clear and direct. In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject performs the verb. The focus is on who (or what) is causing something to happen.

For example:

The ball broke the window.

The pilot flew the plane.

The passive voice is more formal and impersonal. In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the verb. The focus is on what is happening or has happened. Sentences written in the passive voice also include a form of the auxiliary verb 'to be' before the action verb (e.g. is, are, was, were).

For example:

The window was broken by the ball.

The plane was flown by the pilot.

The features of each type of sentence structure can be seen clearly in the examples below.

Active voice examples passive voice examples

How to identify the active and passive voice

Help children to understand the difference between the active and passive voice by asking them to compare the two sentence structures side by side. As children examine the sentences, ask them to suggest what is different about the two variants. Can they spot the difference in tone?

You could also start by asking children to sort sentences by formality or by verb type. Following this type of warm-up, children will be more receptive to the concept of active and passive voice.

When your class is ready to start identifying the sentence types, a good place to start is to explain to children that if the subject performs the verb, the sentence is written in the active voice. If the subject is acted upon by the verb, the sentence is written in the passive voice.

Make sure to explicitly teach the features of active and passive sentences (summarised below), before providing children with plenty of opportunities to compare and categorise sentences.

active passive voice identify convert rewrite

Make it memorable!

A fun way to identify whether a sentence is written in the passive voice is to add 'by zombies' after the verb in the sentence. If the sentence makes sense, it is written in the passive voice. If the sentence does not make sense, it is written in the active voice.

For example:

"The classroom was tidied up." would become "The classroom was tidyied up by zombies."
This sentence still makes sense with the addition of 'by zombies', so it is written in the passive voice.

"The classroom was hot." would become "The classroom was hot by zombies."
This sentence does not make sense, so it is written in the active voice.

Why not have fun with this trick and choose your own silly phrase: 'by aliens', 'by dragons' etc.

Remember, not all passive sentences contain the proposition 'by'. Sometimes, passive sentences do not show who is responsible for the action e.g. The window was broken.

How to rewrite the passive to the active voice (and vice versa)

Asking children to rewrite active sentences in the passive voice involves identifying the subject, verb and object in the sentence.

Active voice:  Arjun bought the last ticket.

To rewrite this sentence in the passive voice, we need to shift the focus of the sentence to what has happened rather than who has performed the action.

The object of the active sentence, ticket, is brought to the front where it becomes the subject of the passive sentence and an auxiliary verb is added before the action verb.

Passive voice: The last ticket was bought by Arjun.

To rewrite this sentence in the active voice, we must shift the focus of the sentence to who has performed the action, rather than what has happened.

In a passive sentence, the person or thing performing the action is known as the agent. To convert a passive sentence into an active sentence, the agent - Arjun - must move from the end of the passive sentence to the front of the active sentence, before the verb, where it then becomes the subject (e.g. Arjun bought the last ticket.)


When to teach active and passive voice

Regarding the active and passive voice, children in Year 6 are expected to:

- identify whether a sentence is written in the active or passive voice;

- re-write a sentence written in the active voice in the passive voice (and vice-versa); and

- choose and apply the appropriate voice in their written work.

Before you teach the active and passive voice, make sure your children know the vocabulary: subject, verb and object and that they can confidently identify these in a sentence.

Children also need some understanding of the differences between formal and informal speech and writing. Most writing, such as narratives, letters and emails, are written in active voice as it is clearer and more direct.

However, newspaper reports and scientific reports - where the perpertrator of event or the cause of an action or reaction is unknown - are often written in the passive voice.

Make sure your provide your children with plenty of varied writing opportunities so they can apply the appropriate sentence structures and verb forms in context.


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