Wednesday, June 1, 2016

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Comment: Teaching grammatical voice to computer science majors (Johnson & Lyddon, 2016)

I was interested in this article for three reasons. First, after teaching an advanced writing course for many years, I know how difficult it is to teach the passive voice. I find that my students often come in with a smattering of ability to use the passive voice naturally (probably because they've picked it up from natural discourse), but struggle when we focus on it explicitly. My Arabic speakers often make errors where they use half passive and half active voicing (e.g. "He was read.."), where they insert the be verb when it's not needed. After such focus, I find that they start to insert passive structures into their papers in places that actually call for active. The second reason this article caught my attention is because I am trying to prepare my students for technical writing, much of which calls for the use of the passive voice. I hope hoping to clean something useful due to its context with computer science majors. Lastly, the subtitle of the article reads, "The case of the less proficient English learners," which clearly describes my student population.

Literature Review

I found the introduction and literature review fairly interesting and useful. They did a good job of confirming why it is still important to teach and use the passive voice. A colleague who was editing my work once told me that I should never use the passive voice, which I thought was strange since the proper use of the passive v.s. active voice simply depends on the context (choice of focus, etc.).

Apparently, in the 1980's there was a move to encourage use of the first person in academic writing in order to "allow for more personal comment, narration and stylistic variation" (p. 2). Fortunately, now things have shifted back.

"Biber and Conrad (2009) found that the use of the passive was particularly evident in research articles, especially so in the methodology sections...They conclude that the advice to avoid the use of the passive, often found in writing guides, is 'misguided' (p. 122). Swales (2006) is able to confirm through a corpus-based analysis of authorial stance across social and material science disciplines that the passive is important in reporting scientific research since it 'enables emphasis to be given to the work rather than the researcher who performs it' (p. 509)" (qtd. in Johnson & Lyddon, 2016, p. 4).

The article also provides a good overview on why exactly the passive voice is so difficult. Some of it stems from the L1. As an example, apparently in Asian languages (about which I know very little), "it is difficult or impossible for an inanimate subject to take on [the] property of agency" (p. 2). The example they gave in the article was: The thermometer measures the temperature, a sentence which could not exist in some languages. They would then want to say, We measure temperature with a thermometer. This latter sentence is one we would want to change to avoid the "we" and thus say Temperature is measured by a thermometer, which is still awkward to them since an inanimate object is still doing something. Another issue is that some verbs that are transitive in English are not in other languages, and vice versa.

Issues with the Article

First, the authors emphasize that grammar textbooks currently available do not do an adequate job in teaching anything more than form, relating to the passive construction. I disagree. The textbooks I have used in the past 10 years all cover quite extensively the meaning and use. For instance, the rules of using passive voice when a) the agent is unknown; b) the agent is assumed and it is not necessary to mention; c) we want to avoid mentioning the agent; or d) we simply want to focus on the object or action, rather than the agent. I regularly go through these patterns, along with a lot of practice. Most of this comes right from the books. I am not sure what grammar textbooks are available in Japan, however.

My second and most important concern relates to the study itself--the research question and methodology. Basically, their study aimed to see if a basic three-session module on passives was effective. In describing their "instructional approach," the authors used a lot of flowery academic language to present what is a very basic PPP (present, practice, produce) lesson plan format. Phases 1 and 2 include verbal explanations and presentation of the material using charts and diagrams. Then, Phase 3 is some type of communicative activity, followed by a reflection-type activity/self-assessment. This is how grammar is usually taught. The authors here called it concept-based instruction  (CBI), which is something I have never heard of, probably because such a notion is so completely elementary in our field. I am familiar with content-based instruction and task-based instruction. But concept-based instruction in my view seems to mean instruction in general, again harking back to the PPP model. Nothing new here.

So I ask, isn't this simply classroom research, where an instructor wants to see whether students met a certain learning outcome or whether a new teaching method was effective using a pre- and post-test? In this case, it is hardly worth publishing, in my opinion.


Johnson, N.H. & P.A. Lyddon, P.A. (2016). Teaching grammatical voice to computer science majors: The case of the less proficient language learners. English for Specific Purposes, 41, 1-11.