Using Mentor Texts to Teach About the Passive Voice

Today’s post is from a guest, Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. And aren’t they lucky to have her? 

Kelly has been regularly emailing me the mentor texts she is using with her students, and this one was so interesting and answers such a common problem in student writing that I thought she should just share it directly with you! Use this as we approach the Winter Break as a little mini mentor study and rid your students’ writing of the passive voice!  Enjoy and leave Kelly some love in the comments below!

Mentor Text: “The Christmas Tree Allergy Phenomenon…”

Writing Technique:  When using the passive voice is effective (and when it’s not)

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 8.57.56 AMBackground: 

Many people find it odd that as a teacher, I don’t own a red pen. I have a rule never to grade a student’s writing in red ink because the sea of red can be very disheartening for young writers learning the craft. I picked this up somewhere in a pedagogy of teaching writing class in grad school and since then, I have been faithful in upholding this rule. Yet, I recently realized the statements I write on my students’ drafts are a bit disheartening, focusing mainly on what not to do or what they shouldn’t’ do in their writing. Don’t put a comma here. Don’t just reiterate your thesis statement in your conclusion. Don’t use passive voice.

I have found myself recently writing this last comment regarding passive voice over and over again on my eleventh grade IB students’ drafts. When I initially addressed it, they said they had no idea they were even slipping into passive voice. I showed them what they were doing, but the next paper, an analytical essay and then subsequent in-class writing assignments, I couldn’t get past reading the passive voice. It stood out in their papers and made their writing stale, forced, and extremely lazy.

I continued my crusade against their use of passive voice, yet my students didn’t seem to be listening. Perhaps I have told them what not to do so much that I have begun to sound like the teacher in every Peanuts comic strip. I had lost my own voice in my classroom and needed to gain it back.

It was then that I realized I needed a new marketing strategy to get my students to listen. Instead of showing them when not to use passive voice, I presented reasons when it was acceptable to use passive voice.

I began with basic sentence constructions like “Mistakes were made” and “Children were harmed by unlicensed drivers.” We discussed how a sentence like “Mistakes were made” changes the emphasis of the sentence so that the reader focuses on the mistakes, not who made them. Likewise, in the latter sentence my students pointed out how the journalist who may have written this sentence wanted his/her readers to focus on the fact that children were harmed, not that they were harmed by unlicensed drivers.

We even read a passage from Death of a Salesman where Linda persuades her sons that “Attention, attention must be be finally paid to such a person” (Miller 40). I rewrote Miller’s dramatic monologue that was originally written in passive voice in active voice. We discussed the benefit of using passive voice in this passage as a means to put emphasis on the word “attention,” instead of directly addressing “you must pay attention.” Several of my students thought that Miller made a poor choice as a writer and liked the more direct active voice of the passage; others came to understand that Miller more than likely made the choice to emphasize the word “attention.”

How I Used the Mentor Text: 

Yet, what really made an impact on my students was when I gave them the mentor text “The Christmas Tree Allergy Phenomenon– Live Christmas Trees Carry Mold That Increase Allergy Symptoms in Susceptible Individuals,” an article published in the National High School Journal of Science. I knew that my students wrote differently in their lab reports for science class and that scientific writing contained a massive amount of passive voice.

Students underlined sentences written passively in the text. They spotted sentences such as “Household air samples were taken from families in the Washington Township, New Jersey area both before and during the winter holiday season” immediately as passive voice. Then the discussion of how they write in their science class evolved. We discussed why it’s appropriate to write this way for science, deciding that scientific writing must

  • Be objective
  • Limit use of personal pronouns
  • Stress what was done in the experiment

We ended by contrasting this with the reasons why active is better for writing like literary analysis, as it makes it more direct and clear with specific verbs that move the writing forward.

Mentor texts have become a centerpiece in my writing instruction. They are real models for students from real writers and real texts, and they are changing my classroom instruction. In seventeen years in the classroom, I have never read a science article with my students; that was supposed to be left for the biology teachers. Students connected with this, though, because of its current topic, authenticity, and connection to them as both science writers and writers of literary analysis. What a great reason to collaborate with mentor texts across the curriculum!

More importantly, my students’ most recent pieces of writing had far less passive voice than any other papers they had written this year. They’ve learned when to use passive voice, and I’ve learned that sometimes as a writing teacher, not only do I need to put down the red pen, but I also need to step away from telling students what not to do. It’s then that they just might listen.

Have you ever used mentor texts to teach the difference between effective passive and active voices? What other bad writing habits have you remediated using a mentor text? How might this mentor text work in your classroom (or the science teacher’s down the hall)? Leave us a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find Allison and me on Twitter (@allisonmarchett, @rebekahodell1). 

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