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NFER - Tests for Years 1-6
NFER - Tests for Years 1-6

I Hate SPAG! – An Active Approach To Making Passive Voice And More Engaging

With the DfE’s standards for spelling, punctuation and grammar at an all-time high it's easier than ever for children to switch off

  • I Hate SPAG! – An Active Approach To Making Passive Voice And More Engaging

I think my son summed up where we are with teaching grammar in primary schools at the moment when he said to me: “I hate SPAG”. When I pointed out to him that I thought he loved grammar, he said, “Oh, I love grammar, but I hate SPAG!”.

There’s no doubt that in terms of grammar subject knowledge, the 2014 national curriculum has set the bar at an all-time high, with children expected to master challenging terminology such as active / passive voice, modal verbs and relative clauses. So, how do we tackle these in a way that’s purposeful and engaging, and not just a hamster wheel of test practice and dull exercises?

Fundamentally, grammar is about learning how to communicate clearly and effectively using language. It is about understanding the many ways that the sentence, the core unit of meaning in our language, can be shaped to create different effects on the reader.

And knowing that the things you can do with words, phrases, clauses and sentences will open up a range of choices for you as a writer.

To illustrate this, I’ve chosen a really tricky bit from this year’s SPAG test: active and passive voice. In the test, both questions about this were answered incorrectly by more than 40 per cent of children. So how can we teach this in a way that’s fun for children, and in a way it will stick?

Assessing understanding

It is crucial that teachers use assessment to find out what children already know and understand in a given area. In assessing understanding we need to encourage children to explain and demonstrate rather than just answer a question. With active and passive voice, children will need to:

• Know what verbs are and be able to identify them in a sentence

• Know that verbs are often expressed as more than one word (she was sitting, had been sitting, etc.)

• Understand what a sentence is and be able to recognise its main parts (subject, verb, object, adverbial)

I might assess this through a guided diagnostic activity with different parts of sentences on cards. Children build sentences and articulate their understanding as they go. For example:

• What do you need to make a sentence? (a noun / noun phrase and a verb / verb phrase)

• How do you know that’s a sentence? (it must have a subject and verb, and be grammatically complete)

• Which bit of your sentence is the subject? How do you know?

• Can you add another noun / noun phrase to your sentence? Where will it go? What part of the sentence is this (object)

• How many different ways could you change the verb? (walked, had walked, was walking, might have walked, etc.). How does this change the meaning?

My next step would be to find a real text that uses passive voice really well; this enables children to see the ‘why’ of grammar learning, because they can appreciate the effect created and begin to try to create similar effects in their own writing. Passive voice can be used to:

• Create a sense of formality / objectivity

• Withhold information about who did an action

A real favourite for me is the Wallace and Gromit: Cracking Contraptions Manual which uses the Haynes Manual format and is written in a brilliantly formal, impersonal tone, but with bags of humour. The passive is used frequently to create the style e.g.: “It is constructed from lightweight armoured material…” and “Once deployed, the high-tension spring and boxing glove are retrieved…”.

Actively being passive

1 Play with sentence structure, starting with active voice

In the sentence The wearer pushed a large red button identify the subject, verb and object (you could do this by writing them on cards so they could be moved around):

The wearer pushed a large red button

                                S           V                 O

How would we write the sentence if we started with the object? Explore how you have to change the verb in order to do this:

A large red button is pushed by the wearer

                            O                     V                   S

Discuss how the passive form of the verb is constructed (by using its past participle, after any tense of the verb ‘to be’). Children could then play around with other sentences in the active voice, and swap them into the passive. The key learning here is to secure the structure but also to discuss the effect of using the passive voice. How is the sentence different for the reader? What does it imply / make you think?

Go back to the text. Can children identify other places where the passive has been used? What effect does it have on the reader?

Have a go at using this effect. Explain your own invention using the passive construction. Perhaps the class could invent the perfect teacher’s chair:

“The seat is covered in extremely firm fabric to deter people from sitting for too long. The back of the chair has been designed to eject if the teacher sits for more than five minutes.”

Children can create their own designs and write an explanation in the style of Cracking Contraptions, using the passive (and other grammatical tools explored) to create the objective / formal tone.

Children will then need to consolidate their understanding by exploring the use of passive voice in the context of other texts (it is used extensively in newspaper reports). Here is an example from Elisa Puricelli Guerra’s novel Minerva Mint and the Order of the Owl, which includes a short report as part of the story.

This morning a baby girl, just a few months old, was found in a travel bag in a waiting room at Victoria station in London.

The bag was made of leather and, allegedly, rather fancy, with the initials “MM” engraved on its brass buckle.

This offers a great way to explore why the author chose to use a newspaper report in this way, and how the style is created. Children could then consider where and how they might use a similar technique in one of their own stories.

The key is to open up possibilities, not close them down. We can do this by placing learning firmly in the context of real text, getting children to play with grammar and articulate their thinking and understanding as they do so.


Three things to remember to make your grammar lessons stick…

Integrate it into all English teaching
You may have some discrete teaching sessions, but link these to wider English teaching. It maximises learning opportunities and ensures children can apply their learning purposefully.

Use the correct terminology, always
Exemplify and use the terminology frequently and children will soon pick it up. For example, continue to refer to adjectives as adjectives and explain that they add information about the noun. Don’t be tempted to call them ‘describing words’ as this only captures one aspect of what adjectives are and what they do.

Use a multi-sensory approach
In No Nonsense Grammar we have developed a Sentence Toolkit to help children link the name of the word type to its function. For example, a noun is an expanding tape measure so that we can demonstrate what happens when you create a noun phrase. Children might also like to develop actions to help strengthen links between the technical term and its definition.

Rebecca Cosgrave is the lead primary English adviser with Babcock LDP. Together with the team at Babcock, she has written No Nonsense Grammar (raintree.co.uk) which recently won a Silver Award from Primary Teacher Update.

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