George and I go way back and I have a good deal to thank him for. I first came across the story of his exploits when searching for an article for an in-house seminar on teaching the passive in 2009 and we have been working together ever since. So essential has he become to helping me get across the idea of theme and rheme (known vs new info) in fact, that I now find it difficult to imagine teaching the passive without him. I hope you’ll find him just as useful!
To begin to understand the reasons as to why he’s so useful, you first need to know his story:
NY eatery frees ancient lobster
A lobster believed to be some 140 years old is to be freed from the confines of a tank at a New York restaurant.
George the giant lobster, weighing 9kg (20lb), will be returned to the ocean, from where he was caught two weeks ago.
The crustacean was bought for $100 (£66) by the City Crab and Seafood and quickly adopted as its mascot, posing for pictures with restaurant patrons.
But animal rights group Peta sought the lobster’s release, and will now put it back into the waters off Maine.
It will enter the ocean in the waters around Kennebunkport, where lobster trapping is banned.
What I first loved about this story was the frequency with which the passive naturally occured in what was really a very short text. The vocabulary was quite simple and could easily be graded for almost any level, and there were very few complex sentences if any. More importantly, and this is something that I have come to understand since, what really makes a lesson based on George work is the fact that there’s something rather endearing about him- people respond to George- and let’s face it, there’s something about lobsters that just shouts ’passive’ (just look at him lying on that plate above).
There are a number of variations in how the text can be used in a lesson but here’s one way in which I have done it for lower levels (say good pre-ints).
1. Picture prediction- pictures of George, the restaurant, a PETA advertisement etc- sts predict what the story/article is about.
2. Pre-teach crustacean and mascot (these are easily pre-taught and keep the article feeling authentic).
3. Listening- Teacher reads the story aloud and sts either check predictions or answer a gist task given by the teacher. Here, I have graded the text to take account of the level:
A 140-year old lobster is to be freed from a tank at a New York restaurant. George the giant lobster will be returned to the ocean, from where he was caught two weeks ago. The crustacean was bought for $100 by the City Crab and Seafood where he became its mascot. But animal rights group Peta demanded the lobster’s release. They will now return it to the waters off Maine.
4. Reconsruction- the T now gives a deconstructed version of the text to the students and they try to reconstruct it. The degree of difficulty can be altered by extending/shortening the chunks of language- the key thing to ensure is that your jumbled version does not give away the subject of the sentence (I once forgot to get rid of the capital letters) and to make sure you neutralise the verb forms.
Write full sentences using the words below. You will need to change the form of the verbs. The words are not in the same order that you’ll use them.
from a tank / at a / a 140-year old lobster / to free / New York restaurant
to catch / George the giant lobster / from where / to return / two weeks ago / to the ocean /
its mascot / to buy / the crustacean / the City Crab and Seafood / where he / to become / for $100 /
but / to demand / the lobster’s release / animal rights group Peta /
they / to return / it / to the waters off Maine / now / will /
5. Once the students (I have them working in pairs) have had a go at doing this- I get them to compare ’answers’ with other pairs and then have them compare their answers with the actual text I read out. More often than not, there are differences, and it is now down to the teacher and students to work out what those differences are- and why the text was written in the way that it was (i.e. why was the passive/active used in each case). What quickly becomes obvious is that many answers/possibilities exist-and that noone is ’wrong’.
There are many ways in which this type of comparision can be focussed. One thing I like to have the students do is circle all the subjects- and note down how many different subjects they used in their versions compared to the ’original’. You can relate this to how coherence is typically achieved in texts through repeated use of the topic as subject- and how this relates to/necessitates use of the passive (the most compelling argument I have for its use and one that tends to be more readily understood than the agent not being known /obvious / unimportant etc).
6. Controlled practice might then focus on editing a text which you have doctored (working at the level of the text is crucial) in an attempt to make it more coherent. In doctoring it you will have changed some of the grammatical subjects and verb forms so that the passive is used (not only) insufficiently but perhaps also inappropriately.
7. Freer practice can then involve students writing their own (alternative) George the Giant Lobster story- either giving this one a different ending (was eaten) or making one up themselves. As with all freer writing tasks, giving the students prompts/stimuli to help support and guide them takes away some of the uncertainty/fear about the content of what they’ll write. One way in which you can quickly come up with some (random) headlines for the students to use would be to brainstorm examples of each of the word forms/types below and then pick at random.
NOUN (place) + FREES + (ADJ) + NOUN (animal)
Library FREES Quiet Chicken
School Awkward Turtle
Restaurant Confident Ostrich
Further help can be provided with a brief outline for the story:
1. How the animal got to be in the place
2. What happened whilst it was there
3. Why it is being freed
Just in case you were in any doubt as to the level of interest there is in George, you should know that there is now a wikipedia entry for him (honest).
And if you are anything like I once was and don’t feel you really do ’get’ the passive- I’d check out Unit 3 of Scott Thornbury’s Beyond the Sentence (Macmillan).