Why can’t we have better text books?

The following sample sentences using passive voice are from my school’s first year English text book.   I could probably turn this into one of those 3000 word ranty posts, but I have a workshop to prepare for.  And I also have to think up some new sample sentences.  Anyway, here is the list of passive voice sentences (with some comments, asked for or not):

1. The car was made last year.
(My translation into commonly used English: This is last year’s model)

2. This dictionary is used by high school students.
(My translation of what the textbook writer was actually saying in Japanese: Most high school students use this dictionary.)

3. The cake was given to me this morning.
(I guess this could be said by someone, at some time, but only if there was some kind of pressing mystery about that damn cake)

4. English is spoken in many countries.
(Not gonna complain about this one.  As far as I know, it certainly is. But without context, it sounds oddly boastful and makes me a little uncomfortable.  But I’m sensitive that way.)

5. Tom was invited to the party yesterday.
(Would need something else to be acceptable to me.  Maybe: Tom was just invited to the party yesterday.  Or: Tom couldn’t come because he was invited to the party yesterday.  Anyway, hope Tom had a good time doing whatever kept him from the party.  I mean, that’s what’s implied right?  Or is it?  Now I’m confused.)

6. Was the book written by him?
(Not even gonna comment on this)

7. This hotel was opened a year ago.
(I have a useless ‘was’ for sale, cheap, as long as you come and take it out of this sentence yourself)

8. (in conversation form)
A: The dog doesn’t look happy.
B: No food was given to him.
(Poor dog.  Wonder why they just don’t say: He hasn’t eaten in days.  Someone call the SPCA!)

9. Is the book read by many people?
(Once again a poor translation from Japanese where passive is used to express that something is quite common or typical or popular.  Why the sentence, “Everyone and their grandmother is reading this book this summer,” isn’t highlighted more in Japanese English text books is way beyond me.)

10. (in conversation form)
A: Does everybody know her?
B: Yes, she is loved by everyone.
(First off, I want to meet her and judge for myself.  Secondly, does B’s comment actually work with what A said without an ‘and’ in there?  And finally, if you’re gonna put something in dialogue form, shouldn’t it resemble spoken English?  I can tell you one thing for sure, if she had anything to do with writing these sample sentences, she is certainly not loved by me.  But maybe after we sit down and talk things over, I’ll decide she’s pretty cool after all).

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24 thoughts on “Why can’t we have better text books?

  1. Love your comments! I agree — those sentences seem strained, even if you came up with more context to support them. Passive mood usually comes up in my classes in the context of describing customs or explaining procedures. "Breakfast is served at 7:00 sharp." "The keys to the storage room are kept in this drawer." "The bride is usually escorted by her father." The holidays tend to bring it out!

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  2. Passive voice is often very contextual. We use it to keep the focus on a main Subject whose role changes from being the agent to the patient. An example might be an obituary where they talk about life events. (he was shot and taken to hospital last night at …) but I haven't really found a coursebook that deals with passive like this, they usual have sentence transformation and use the passive voice much more than it naturally occurs and so it is forced. I guess it's a problem with a lot of higher level grammar being taught through guided discovery in "natural text" because the grammar is rare it doesn't occur as much…so you have to make it unnatural to present it "properly"

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  3. This reminds me that I've seen several useful examples on sample questions for the TOEIC…which highlight another 'natural' context in which such grammatical structures are used.That context to which I am referring is things like instructions and warning signs (yes, some of these are commands, but read on for a moment if you will) :D"Applicants are advised that all materials must be submitted in a single envelope.""Class are only cancelled in the event of adverse weather, or in case a substitute teacher cannot be found. Students are warned to ignore all other notifications of class cancellations."(I made those up off the top of my head.)I'd imagine that in some cases, "making it unnatural" to highlight it is an inevitable thing (if one is forced to 'teach' it). However, I'd say that some of these examples show a bit of a tangent, and perhaps that the author(s) was in a hurry to fill up a page(?).

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  4. Hi Kathy,Thanks for the comment and the great example sentences. I'm gonna use those for my next passive voice lesson. Although, I really wish I could just avoid the whole thing when teaching my first year lessons. There's so much more language I would like to explore with the students before hitting the passive voice. Oh well. The Ministry of Education will not be denied. Kevin

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  5. Hi Gemma,Sorry to make your day a little sadder. I think the text books at my school are particularly horrible (but I might just be biased). Probably it has to do with the pace of the structural syllabus here in Japan. They teach really difficult structures with very limited vocabulary. It's amazing how 1950's the whole thing feels. To explore the rich texture of passive versus active voice, I think the students need to have a much larger working vocabulary. Kevinp.s. well, it's almost Christmas, maybe Santa will bring me a new text book for next year.

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  6. Hi Chris, Thanks for dropping in. Obituaries are the first thing that spring to my mind when thinking of a natural use of the passive voice. Another one is official meeting minutes, "The resolution was passed with a 3/4 vote," and "As no objections were raised, the open comments session was closed at 9:14 PM." While natural, I'm pretty sure my students would die of boredom if I subjected them to reading municipality meeting minutes. Which is one of the problems, isn't it. The places we are likely to find a rich source of passive voice input are quite dull. Which might be why text books tie themselves in knots trying to present it. Kevin

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  7. Hi Georgeanna,Another great set of examples which would be closer to how students would encounter English outside of the classroom. I'm thinking I should send a letter to the text book publishers and have them read the comment section of this post so they can get a sense of useful example sentences. Scott Thornbury has an exercise in "Teaching Grammar Creatively" which uses newspaper headlines to teach passive voice. Similar to what Chris was mentioning, actually. Scott combines the headline angle with fairy tales. The story of Little Red Riding Hood becomes the headline, "Girl devoured by Wolf." The headline is then written out as a complete sentence, "A girl was eaten by a wolf." And then students write the first sentence of the story in passive tense, "Yesterday afternoon, a young girl in a red cape was eaten by a hungry wolf." There are probably a lot of other exemplars which would help students get the feel of passive voice much better than what is in my text book. And thanks to you and the rest of the comments here, I think next years class will be much more enjoyable. For both me and the students.Kevin

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  8. Leo,Thanks for the comment. And you are just the person I was looking for. I was trying to use a concordancer to find examples of passive voice used in natural text. I was trying the CORORA from BYU (http://corpus.byu.edu/) but can't find what I'm looking for. Kind of super-specific question, but exactly how would I go about searching for [be] in all forms combined with the past participle [V?d]of any verb? I was also playing around on lexitutor (http://www.lextutor.ca/), but it doesn't seem super helpful for this vague kind of structure search. Any suggestions?Kevin

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  9. And here, in one pithy post, is much of the reason why I first started out trying to write coursebooks myself! Though having said that, you're no doubt going to tell me three of the above are actually from books I've co-authored and I'll end up looking a right twat!

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  10. hi kevinfor the coca for all 'be' have you tried [vb*] plus the verb you are interested in? e.g. [vb*] usedalso passive voice comes up in causative sentences -e.g, kevin got the search term looked up (by mura) 🙂

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  11. Mura,You are my hero. Now I can at least look up verbs that I think would commonly be found used in the passive voice and see exactly how they are used. Which is quite nice. And I found out that used is used in the passive voice much more often that I had thought. Still, I have a nagging feeling that if I could actually search for passive voice itself within a corpus, there might be scads of verbs that are used with a passive construction that I'm just not aware of. I definitely need to spend some more time digging into how to get the more out of a corpus.And since we are now officially involved in a Passive Voice Usage Party, or P-VUP for short, I'll add passive voice to describe rituals + artifacts. Since Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights is coming up, I'll suggest: – The Chanukah candles are lit, one for each night of the eight day festival.and – Dreidel, a top like toy used for gambling with chocolate, is played by children throughout the Chanukah festival.Hope everyone is getting the potato pancake mix ready. It's almost time for Chanukah!Kevinp.s. if you don't know anything about Chanukah, and are kind of interested, I recommend this musical version of what Chanukah is all about from Adam Sandler (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeC8nTYEwQQ)

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  12. Hi Hugh,Thanks for swinging by. And while not 100% certain, I am fairly sure that the author of a course book which teaches "natural English," would never write, "No food was given to him," unless he had a gun or some similar dangerous object pointed at his head. I guess most course book authors and material developers must start of writing out of a sense of dissatisfaction. I'm working on my first book (it's a big secret so, you know, don't tell anyone except the eighty or so people who read this blog) of stories for ELLs and it was because I was forced to do the crazy dance from reading one too many ESL targeted "stories" which lacked a discernible character, events that engendered a sense of cause and effect, or even a recognizable setting in which the story was taking place. Of course ESL students read each and every word and often translate as they read. They are trying to decode each and every word like mad to overcompensate for bad writing! They're searching for the rich information that would normally be in a story. Oh, wait, seems I drifted way out into rant-land. What were we talking about? Right, passive voice… Passive voice is great when describing the routines of people or animals who lack volition like in animal husbandry, where, "The cattle are woken up each morning at 7 AM." Or schools, "The teachers are observed by the local school authority twice yearly."Kevin

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  13. Hi Kevin (and Mura)To look up passives on COCA (which I prefer these days), key in the following:WORD(S): [vb*] (for all forms of BE as Mura has already pointed out)COLLOCATES: [v?n*] (for the -en form, aka past participle)I limited the search span to 2 to the right (0 to the left)It seems USED indeed is the most common. Are you surprised by the findings? Interesting. Thank you for prompting me to do it – I've never searched for passive voice before.P.S. Happy Chanukkah!

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  14. Just to throw in a quick note on searching for passives in corpora generally … as a corpus researcher, I can say that there's no magic formula I've yet found that will catch everything, I'm afraid 😦 It's one of those really slippery constructions in English that's difficult to pin down.Well done for trying though and good luck with the search!

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  15. Hi Leo,Thank you for the tip. I've used COCA to do very basic collaction searches, but this is my first time to use it to look for a grammatical structure. Amazingly powerful tool. I wonder if anyone (hint, hint) who might be willing to run a webinar on corpus use…Kevin

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  16. Hi Julie,Thanks for the comment and it's a pleasure to meet you. I just popped over to your blog and have it bookmarked in my web browser. Will also be following you on Twitter as well. After you mentioned how slippery the passive voice is, I started thinking about how it might be used in conjunction with over tenses. So I jumped on COCA. When using the passive to express futurity for instance, it seems that announcements of future events (especially funurals, no shock there) are the most common usage. But it also is used for explaining research results and how they will find their way into everyday life ("The DNA sequencing will be used…") as well as to explain production ("The materials will be used to make…"). When teaching the passive voice with futurity, I've rarely (maybe make that never) used these examples and will certainly be adding them to my bag of tricks. More surprising, the future perfect in the passive voice, which my text books spends half a unit on, is almost never used. In fact, it's lack of actual use makes me wonder, as a language teacher who has only so much time in class with my students, if there is any real reason for drilling students on this grammar pattern at all. So aside from just opening up all kinds of avenue for bringing real language into the class, corpus ends up raising a bunch of other issues, such as problems with syllabus design, which often times can be noted, but not really addressed by a teacher. In my case, the first year classes follow a ministry of education syllabus, and as much as I would lke to just toss out future perfect in passive voice, I think I'm stuck with it.Funny how a quick blog post has led me to exploring corpus. Thanks to you and the rest of the teachers/writers/researchers who left comments, what was just a way to let off some steam, has turned into one of the most personally useful blog posts I've written.Kevin

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  17. I don't know if I'd be as harsh. At least these sentences appear to make sense! I think we're just missing context (as we often do in solitary sentence examples).For example:"2. This dictionary is used by high school students. (My translation of what the textbook writer was actually saying in Japanese: Most high school students use this dictionary.)" A librarian is explaining the different sections of the library: This dictionary is used by high school stduents. That dictionary is used by younger students. Those dictionaries are reserved for teachers only.Yes, like you seem to, I prefer when sentences have context (that's why most of my examples are in a story form) but that isn't always possible all the time in textbooks.As for my favorite time to use passive? Recipes can be fun. I once did a lesson where students were given strips of paper with different instructions. First they drew pictures of them (to show comprehension), then ordered them (what goes first), finally they changed them all into passive voice. In the end we made the recipe which ended up being the best part (of course). I altered it another time to be How a piñata is made for 5 de mayo and we all bashed them after 🙂

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  18. Ah Passives, how boring would a teacher's life be without them? ;)Last time I taught passives, I combed the web for sentences with context relevant to the students of that class for that period. More like the web, I browsed through news pages, which is probably the best place to look for them, don't you think? and, if I remember correctly, I actually spent a long time looking for them and had to settle for sentences which were probably a tad more complicated (lexis wise) than I would have liked for that level. And I didn't want to make any changes whatsoever to the sentences…

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  19. Kevin,You know what would be fun?Write a post like this about reported speech. Lots of hair-raising examples in coursebooks.Seriously, though, as a writer myself, I find that the more intertwined with LEXIS passive voice is, the better: e.g.: He was shot / robbed / kidnapped, The movie was directed by / written by / shot in… Also, the more genre-based, the better, I think (e.g.: text about, say, a certain industrial process as both presentation AND practice). I avoid sentence transformation like the plague.

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  20. Hi Carissa,You have a point about the harshness of the post. I was feeling pretty testy about the course book when I wrote this post. In the grand scheme of things, example sentences are often going to be decontextualized by their very nature and it is up to the teacher to find a good framing device so that the example sentences resonate with the students. Your ideas about recipes and piñatas are great examples for building a context. Thanks for the ideas and the nudge towards a more gentle blog.Kevin

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  21. Hi Chiew,Sorry for the long wait on a reply. Wanted to say how much I've enjoyed following along on your CELTA experience. And I do indeed love using newspaper articles for teaching passive voice. Think they give a much better sense of how the passibe voice is used than stand alone sentences. They're great for awareness raising activities. Highlighting chunks of language (an idea I lifted from Leo) and running the text through a frequency checker and swapping out low frequency words are easy ways to make a newspaper article more accessible. But there definitely is something to be said about occasionally letting the students strive to work with an unaltered text. Kevin

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  22. Hi Luiz,Thanks for the comment. I'm thrilled you found the blog. I've recently been spending a fair bit of time lurking over on yours as well. Amazing collection of useful, theory based material and reflective posts. I like the idea of keeping passive voice lessons genre based. Depending on the type of text, passive voice can be either appropriate or jarring. And keeping LEXIS front and center when teaching grammar is also something I need to remind myself of constantly. It's great to get ideas from material writers like you and Rachel and Hugh.Hope you have an excellent holiday season and looking forward to your blog in 2013.Kevin

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