How can I make my writing more formal?

Voice, in the context of grammar refers to the way of indicating who is doing the action. Active voice is where the ‘doer’ comes before the verb; e.g., The boy walked the dog Passive voice is where the ‘receiver’ of the action is placed before the verb; e.g., The dog was walked by the boy. Passive sentences are common in explanation sequences and to make writing more impersonal and detached.

Strategy

Explicit teaching

Discuss what information or skills the teacher needs to explicitly teach the student for them to develop the skill.

Passive sentences are formed with the verb to be (present – is, are, past – was, were) and the past participle.
Students may need to refer to a list of irregular verbs when writing passive sentences.

Examples of regular verbs (with -ed endings in the past tense):

  • to play (infinitive), played (past simple), played (past participle).

Examples of irregular verbs:

  • to take – took (past simple) – taken (past participle).
  • to see, saw, seen.

General strategies

Students identify passive sentences in texts. They can practice changing sentences from texts from passive to active and vice versa, and discuss the effect on the reader.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: what is done – and who by?

Ask students to list all the things that are done in different institutions or workplaces. It could also be related to a topic of study, for example, waste disposal

Students list their suggestions in pairs. In a school for example, they might say:

  • new students are enrolled.
  • lunch is served.
  • exercise books are provided.
  • students are taught.
  • students are taken on excursions.

Ask students who these things are done by. Students can write down an agent suitable to each sentence and rewrite  sentences in active voice.

  • What is done – and by who?
  • Students are enrolled. Office staff.
  • Students are enrolled by office staff (passive with agent).
  • Office staff enroll new students (active).

Try the same thing with an aspect of the target topic:

Recycling

  1. Recyclable waste is collected from homes and businesses – by whom?
  2. The waste is taken to recycling centres – by whom?
  3. Paper is shredded – by whom or what?
  4. Plastic is melted down – by whom or what?
  • Recyclable waste is collected from homes and businesses by city council workers. – passive voice
  • City council workers collect recyclable waste from homes and businesses – active voice

The four sentences under the heading recycling use passive voice which is typical of explanations; scientific texts remove the ‘doer’ from the process. An engaging activity is to play silly sentences by allowing students to suggest silly ‘doers’ to change passive sentences in active sentences:

VoiceWhat is done?By whom or what?
PassivePaper is shredded.by the paper-eating beetle.
ActivePaper eating beetles shred paper.n/a

Activity 2: newspaper headlines

Students can search for passive sentences in newspaper headlines and make a collection.  Students can also create headlines exaggerating something that has happened to them. Example:

  • student is applauded by fans (if student received applause for a good speech at school).

Students may read explanations as part of building the field about the topic, for example, about recycling:

  • rubbish is collected from houses.
  • different materials are separated.

Activity 3: what is happening in the world at the moment?

Brainstorm ideas about a current issue, for example, the environment, and compare/discuss the effectiveness of language used in the form present progressive passive tense (1) or past perfect passive (2). Rewrite sentences in the active voice – see also silly sentences

  • Trees are being cut down.
    Habitats are being destroyed.
    Animals are being killed.

    Rivers are being polluted.
  • Trees have been cut down.
    Habitats have been destroyed.
    Animals have been killed.

    Rivers have been polluted.

References

Australian curriculum

ACELY1711: Interpreting, analysing, evaluating: Analyse how text structures and language features work together to meet the purpose of a text.

NSW syllabus

EN3-6B: Outcome 6: uses knowledge of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary to respond to and compose clear and cohesive texts in different media and technologies  (EN3-6B) - Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features: experiment using a range of language features, eg connectives, topic sentences, active and passive voice and nominalisation

NSW literacy continuum

WRIC12M3: Aspects of writing, Cluster 12, Marker 3: Creates well planned, extended texts that include more complex and detailed subject matter and language features such as nominalisation.

Teacher resource

Student resource

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