12 strategies for enhancing intermediate language students’ writing

(Co-authored with Steven Smith and Dylan Vinales)

1.Introduction 

In this post I suggest strategies for enhancing modern-language students’ chances to succeed at writing, based on cognitive models of L2 written production and skill acquisition.

I will start by outlining the processes which underlie writing, as laid out in Hayes and Flowers’ (1980) model of essay writing and Cooper and Matsuhashi’s (1983) account of the Translating processes. Both models will provide us with extremely useful insights in the issues that undermine written performance thereby cueing us to the instructional approaches that may help us ‘fix’ or ideally prevent those issues.

It should be noted that whereas in a previous post I discussed the implications of these models for advanced-level students, here I will concern myself with students preparing for the England and Wales GCSE examination, who typically fall into the Lower to Upper Intermediate proficiency bands. Please note that Steve Smith and I have dealt more thoroughly with this topic in our book, ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ (here).

If you are not interested in the theory behind my approach, go straight to paragraph 4, where I lay out the suggested twelve minimal-preparation/high-impact instructional strategies.

2.Understanding higher order writing processes: Planning, Organising, Goal-setting and Editing

The Hayes and Flower model concerns itself mainly with the higher order writing processes. It posits three main components:

(1) the Task-environment, which includes the Writing Assignment (the topic, the target audience, and motivational factors)and the text one is producing;

(2) the Writer’s Long-term memory (LTM), which provides factual knowledge and skill/genre specific procedures;

(3) the Writing Process, which consists of the three sub-processes of Planning, Translating and Reviewing and occurs in Working Memory.

Figure 1: The Hayes and Flower Model of writing

images

The Planning process sets goals (e.g. I need to write about the pros of using the car) based on information drawn from the Task-environment (e.g. the essay title: Discuss the pros and cons  of using the car ) and Long-Term Memory  (our background knowledge and our previous experience with similar essay titles).

Once the goals have been established, a writing plan is developed to achieve those goals. More specifically, the Generatings sub-process retrieves information from LTM through an associative chain in which each item of information or concept retrieved functions as a cue to retrieve the next item of information and so forth. (e.g. cars use fossil fuels > fossil fuels cause CO2 emissions> CO2 emissions pollute, etc.)

The Organising sub-process selects the most relevant items of information retrieved and organizes them into a coherent writing plan.

Finally, the Goal-setting sub-process sets rules (e.g. ‘keep it simple’,’avoid long lists of nouns’, ‘add in more tenses and opinions’, etc.) that will be applied in the Editing process.

The second macro-process, Translating, transforms the information retrieved from LTM into language. This is necessary since concepts are stored in LTM in the form of Propositions (‘concepts’/ ‘imagery’), not words – a language that some refer to as ‘Brainese’. Flower and Hayes (1980) provide the following examples of what propositions involve:  [(Concept A) (Relation B) (Concept C)] or {Concept D) (Attribute E)], etc.

Finally, the Reviewing processes of Reading and Editing have the function of enhancing the quality of the written output. The Editing process checks that grammar rules and discourse conventions are not being flouted, looks for semantic inaccuracies and evaluates the text in the light of the writing goals. The Editing process checks that grammar rules and discourse conventions are not being flouted, looks for semantic inaccuracies and evaluates the text in the light of the writing goals.Two important features of the Editing process are: (1) it is triggered automatically whenever a fault is detected; (2) it may interrupt any other ongoing process.

Editing is regulated by an attentional system called the Monitor. This system seems to be more active in certain individuals than others, a phenomenon that has led Stephen Krashen to categorize language learners in ‘High monitors’ and ‘Low Monitors’. In my PhD study I identified a number of factors that appeared to render my subjects more sensitised to form accuracy than others; the most decisive of them were  personality, motivation and previous history as learners. In particular I found that students who had been taught in learning settings where attention-to-form had been emphasized were generaly higher and more effective monitors.

Hayes and Flower’s model is useful in providing teachers with a framework for understanding the many demands that essay writing poses to students. In particular, it helps teachers understand how the recursiveness of the writing process (i.e. the fact that the writer goes back and forth reviewing and editing) may cause those demands to interfere with each other causing cognitive overload and error. For instance, it suggests that if a student’s attention is constantly absorbed by the lower demands of written production, such as dealing with spelling or grammatical concerns, her higher order processes will suffer, and vice versa, with potentially catastrophic consequences for both levels of the text. This is one major reason why so many sixth formers underperform – unsurprisingly so, as how can one plan and write an essay effectively when one is still worrying about basic grammar issues such as agreement and word order, vocabulary choice and even spelling?

Hence, the first implication for teaching is that the lower order processes must be routinized as much as possible through a specific instructional focus on core micro-skills (e.g. spelling, agreement, word-order, ect.)

3. Understanding lower order writing processes : Translating ‘brainese’ into the target language

To truly understand the problems that the students experience in translating the propositional content (the ideas) into the target language we need to look elsewhere, e.g. at Cooper and Matsuhashi (1983)’s account below, which has more important implications for teaching. Cooper and Matsuhashi (1983) posit four stages, which correspond to Hayes and Flower’s (1980) TranslatingWording, Presenting, Storing and Transcribing.

In the first stage, the brain transforms the propositional content into vocabulary. Although at this stage the pre-lexical decisions the writer made at earlier stages and the preceding discourse limit vocabulary choice, Wording the proposition is still a complex task: ‘the choice seems infinite, especially when we begin considering all the possibilities for modifying or qualifying the main verb and the agentive and affected nouns’ (Cooper and Matsuhashi, 1983: 32).

Once she has selected the lexical items, the writer has to tackle the task of Presenting the proposition in standard written language. This involves making a series of decisions in the areas of genre, grammar and syntax. In the area of grammar, Agreement, Word-order and Tense will be the main issues for L1-English learners of target languages like French, German, Italian or Spanish.

The proposition, as planned so far, is then temporarily stored in Working  Memory  while Transcribing takes place. Propositions longer than just a few words will have to be rehearsed and re-rehearsed in Working Memory for parts of it not to be lost before the transcription is complete – which will require a substantial amount of attentional capacity.

The limitations of Working Memory create serious disadvantages for unpractised second language writers. Until they gain some confidence and fluency with spelling, their Working Memory may have to be loaded up with letter sequences of single words or with only 2 or 3 words (Hotopf, 1980). This not only slows down the writing process, but it also means that all other planning must be suspended during the transcriptions of short letter or word sequences. This will also make it hard for the brain to deal with words that are grammatically related but are located quite far from each other in a sentencee.g. ‘Mi madre es inglesa pero parece más italiana que mi padre que es alto y rubio’; with sentences like this one, Working Memory will struggle, as it will be able to deal with only chunks of two or three words at the time, which entails that by the time it gets to process the end-part of the sentence it might miss the fact that ‘italiana’ has to agree with ‘madre’.

The physical act of transcribing the fully formed proposition begins once the graphic image of the output (i.e its spelling) has been stored in Working Memory. In L1-writing, Transcribing occupies subsidiary awareness, enabling the writer to use focal awareness for other plans and decisions. However, this is not the case for the unpractised L2 writer in that she has a limited amount of attention to allocate and that whatever is taken up with the lower level demands of written language must be taken from something else.

This means that linguistic features perceived by the brain as less salient, such as function words, word-endings and copulas (e.g. ‘is’) are likely to be the first victims of Working-Memory loss as caused by divided attention as they are not essential for communication. This is a widely documented phenomenon amongst Novice-to-Intermediate L2 writers.

In sum, Cooper and Matsuhashi (1983) posit two main stages in the conversion of the preverbal message into a speech plan: (1) the selection of the right lexical units and (2) the application of grammatical rules. The unit of language is then deposited in STM awaiting translation into grapho-motor execution. This temporary storage raises the possibility that lower level demands affects production as follows:

(1) causing the writer to omit material during grapho-motor execution (i.e. the physical act of writing) – the most typical mistake in this phase is when students omit copulas (e.g. ‘is’);

(2) leading to forgetting higher-level decisions already made. Interference resulting in WSTM loss can also be caused by lack of monitoring of the written output due to devoting conscious attention entirely to planning ahead, while leaving the process of transcription to run ‘on automatic’.

4. Challenges and implications for the teaching of writing

As the above model clearly suggests, there is much more to writing than meets the eye and it is only through exploring the students’ cognitive processes through Think-aloud procedures that Hayes and Flower could produce the above-discussed model.

The most glaring challenge refers to the many demands that the L2-student writer’s Working Memory must juggle simultaneously as she produces written output, as most performance deficits will stem from inadequate ‘juggling’. Working Memory having very limited cognitive ‘space’ to process all these demands at the same time, teachers need to ensure that as many of these processes as possible are gradually routinised throughout the course in preparation for the exam. The more routinised the processes are, the less cognitive space they will require as they will be carried out subconsciously with negligible cognitive demands on the writer’s attention system.

To tackle the above challenge teachers should:

 – address each of the above processes and the skills/strategies needed to master them;

– (due to the time constraints imposed by the course) prioritise the processes and skills needing more attention (Planning based on a correct understanding the task brief? Idea generation? Lexical search? Syntax? Spelling?) in their Long-/Medium- and Short-term planning based on the identified needs of the target students;

– ensure they create opportunities for practising those skills/strategies over and over again throughout the two years of the GCSE course.

These are, for example, the priorities I have identified with my current group of year 11 students and have been addressing in my teaching, as listed in ascending order of importance:

(9) Understanding the exam brief (accurate interpretation of exam briefs)

(8) Performing noun-adjective agreement accurately

(7) Conjugating irregular verbs accurately across all target tense

(6) Selecting the correct tense

(5) Retrieving the target vocabulary rapidly and accurately in production (an important aspect of fluency)

(4) Using connectives and other discourse markers effectively to organize discourse coherently and cohesively

(3) Monitoring production of small function-words (the least visible item to the editing eye of the L2 student)

(2) Building complex and accurate sentences under time constraints (i.e. under Real Operating Conditions such as an exam)

(1) Self-monitoring (ability to edit based on knowledge of their most common production issues)

Prioritising (a must!) and keeping in my focal awareness the above in my planning has improved my teaching substantially, as some of the above skill-sets, especially (1) to (5), are the most important with the group of students I am currently teaching. Once identified my 5 top priorities, I structured my teaching  accordingly and addressed them systematically in every unit of work I planned in the last year and a bit.

Here are twelve  minimal prep / high-impact instructional strategies that worked for me

4.1 Practise understanding task briefs – First and foremost, as it is obvious, students must be given plenty of practice in understanding writing tasks briefs. At the early stages of preparation for the exams, this is better done by divorcing this activity from the actual essay writing. Give students a series of briefs and help them tackle the task by (a) modelling top-down inference strategies (e.g. using key-words); (b) teaching them the core vocabulary typically occurring in briefs alongside the topic-specific lexis that you will teach anyway as part of the course. When you run out of past-exam task briefs in the target language (e.g. French), translate the ones found in exams in other languages (e.g. German, Spanish, Italian).

4. 2 Increase task familiarity – Task familiarity has a number of major positive effects on students’ performance, some pertaining to the affective and some to the cognitive spheres. Firstly, from a cognitive point of view familiarity with the task will speed up the planning and organizing sub-processes as by practising the same task-type over and over the brain will identify and ultimately acquire schematas (cognitive patterns) which it will be able to apply to those tasks in the future. Secondly, as it is obvious, increased familiarity results in higher levels of expectancy of success and lower anxiety levels.

Many teachers increase task-familiarity by getting their students to practise with as many target writing tasks as possible; e.g. if the students have to write 140 words essay titles containing a 4-bullet-points exam brief, they will get their students to write many essays of this sort. However, this approach can be greatly enhanced by providing as many opportunities to process receptively as many model essays as possible across as many topics as possible. Producing model essays of this sort can be quite time consuming but pays enormous dividends – please note: by model essays I mean high quality essays containing linguistic material with high surrender value.

Obviously, simply asking the students to read model essays will not be enough. The students must be encouraged to notice specific desirable features, such as use of connectives; the deployment of specific idioms or set phrases, etc.. This can be done (a) through metalinguistic questions on the texts (e.g. why is the imperfect use in line 10?; how many adjectives can you spot in paragraph two?; etc.). Using model essays with their translation alongside (i.e. parallel texts) can be particularly useful when purporting to engage students in metalinguistic analysis of the text. (b) by asking the students to translate specific ítems in the text you want to draw their attention to.

Another dimension of task-familiarity pertains to knowing the evaluative criteria set by the Examination Board. The students ought to know in as much detail as possible how the examiner is going to mark their essay and what their baseline at the beginning of the course is as benchmarked against those criteria. This will start their process of self-monitoring vis-à-vis the identified deficits. The model essays alluded to above will be used to set aspirational goals based on the desirable features they will contain, whilst less ‘good’ essays will be shown to enhance student awareness of common pitfalls of ineffective writing. To further enhance such awareness a range of A*, A, B, C, D and E grade essays may be shown to the students who, working in groups, will rate them using the Examination Board criteria. Groups compare each other’s grading and discussion ensues – an AFL classic.

4.3 Increase the students’ planning efficiency – At GCSE level, organization is not a major issue; however, planning the essay before writing by brainstorming what is known and structuring it accordingly will lighten the cognitive load, especially with less proficient learners.

In the course of an interventionist study carried out with Professor Macaro in six Oxfordshire comprehensive schools with year 10 students of French, we used the following planning strategy: once understood the brief, the students were asked to brainstorm as many words, phrases and sentences associated to the various points in the brief as they could recall off the top of their head – any. They would then use the brainstormed items to generate ideas and plan the composition.

This strategy correlated with higher levels of success at post-test, especially with weaker students. The rationale for its success: the brainstorming starts a series of associations which stimulates idea generation; the words and phrases retrieved whilst brainstorming give the student a sense of reassurance that they can write something about each sub-topic and in many case all the students have to do is connect the various bits on their mind map into to produce meaningful and cohesive whole.

4.4 Practise smart coverage – Of course teaching masses of vocabulary is a must ; however, with the little time available it is impossible to cover the whole of the syllabus in the time allocated by the course. By practising smart coverage you will optimize vocabulary teaching. To achieve this you may:

(a) teach high surrender value items and structures. This means: (1) Identify  as many words, phrases and sentences as possible, that can be used whatever the essay title might be (e.g. connectives;  high frequency adjectives such as those expressing like and dislikes and emotions; high frequency verbs such as modal verbs; key tenses; key phrases/idioms such as ‘there are’, ‘to top it off’, ‘what I like/dislike’, ‘the best thing is’ and core structures such ‘after doing something’, ‘I think/don’t think it is’ etc. ); (2) recycle them to death in every single unit of work you are teaching; (3) create opportunities for practising those  items and structures across all four skills day in day out.

(b) recycle as much of the core vocabulary listed by the examination board in their specification as much as possible in your schemes of work. I have a box in every single unit/sub-unit I will teach this year, called ‘Recycling opportunities’ in which I list the words and structures processed in previous units  which I will recycle in the present unit and explain how it can be done.

(c) Focus on verbs much more than you currently do– Whilst nouns are the most important word class in terms of survival communicative skills, verbs significantly increase an L2 speaker/writer’s  autonomous communicative competence and expressive power in academic settings. Students are usually equipped with a very limited range of target-language verbs, partly because teachers are afraid their students will not be able to conjugate them. Teach your students the infinitive of the core verbs as you would teach any other lexical item; once your students know how to conjugate the modal verbs (want, can and must)or any other verbs requiring the infinitive (e.g. il faut in French or Hay que in Spanish) across the main tenses, the students will be able to use those infinitives across a wide range of contexts.

4.5 Masses of ‘smart’ receptive processing – As I reiterated in every post of mine, bombarding students with lots of listening and reading is fundamental to enhance students’ acquisition. However, when using receptive processing to enhance essay writing, whether we use model essays as suggested above or other written or aural texts, we need to ensure that we direct the students attention to the items we want them to incorporate in their writing. In paragraph 3 I discussed two strategies we can use to achieve that.

But what is even more important is that we give them opportunity to use whatever vocabulary or structures we expose to in the receptive input in student-generated productive output after they have processed it. So, if after two or three receptive activities we have encouraged them to notice the use of the pattern ‘After doing something’ we will ensure that they practise it productively afterwards in two or three subsequent tasks. Way too often, this does not happen; all that remains is a few examples scribbled on the whiteboards.

4.6 Address the core micro-skills- According to much research into the acquisition of French and Spanish as L2s, noun-adjective, subject-verb, article-noun and any other form of agreement are acquired (i.e. highly routinized) quite late in the language learning process. Hence, they require much more practice than is currently done in ML classrooms. In view of what we said in terms of the limited storage capacity of working memory, these skills ought to be practised day in day out. The minimal preparation way of dealing with this is devoting five minutes of your lesson to (a) receptive processing activities, such grammaticality judgement quizzes (three or more options are given, e.g. ‘ un chat blanc  / une chat blanc / une chat blanche’ and students to choose the right answer explaining why), partial dictations (students is given ‘Ma souris est ________’ and teacher utters’ ma souris est blanche’); (b) productive ones such as gap-fills (e.g. une souris_____ (blanc)) and  mini-white-board translations (teacher utters sentence in English and students to translate into target language).

Sadly, because agreement and conjugations are not perceived as salient by the anglo-saxon brain, when experiencing cognitive overload, they are usually the first thing to be overlooked by novice L2 student writers.

Ideally, practice in these micro-skills should occur in Primary or at least in the early years of Secondary. Students who have acquired such skills will be more fluent as they will have more cognitive space available in Working Memory to devote to higher order decisions regarding syntax, lexical selection and even planning and content organization.

4.7 Focus on small function words – small function words such as prepositions, conjuctions and articles are not semantically salient, hence they are another frequent victim of cognitive overload. Sadly, they are also one of the items in the syllabus that teachers and textbooks neglect. This is a problem if we consider that prepositions are usually the one set of items that even advanced learners struggle with as they often escape the rule of thumbs we teach them, most of them are polysemic and their usage frequently differs across languages and is not always based on common sense.

Solution: (a) when you do your miniwhiteboard translation practice make sure your sentences include prepositions; (b) when you model grammar/syntax through sentence builders, have a column which include pepositions; (c) do partial dictations where the missing items are function words; (d) use typographic devices to highlight the occurrence and interesting use of a small function word; (e) raise their awareness of the fact that they are likely to overlook this words in the editing phase of their essay writing and of the importance of having a run-through before handing in their piece which focuses solely on them; (f) last but not least: teach them how to use prepositions in context.

4.8 Work on students’ syntax – The students must be taught explicitly how to construct sentences; they will not just acquire it subconsciously through reading – as some ML teachers seem to believe – or by redrafting an essay incorporating their instructor’s corrections.

The best and easiest way to model sentence building is through carefully designed sentence builders like the one in the picture below. I teach grammar and syntax through them all the time thereby providing aural and visual input and presenting the grammar/syntax in context. This synergy between reading and listening truly is key to the success of this technique.

Figure 2 – Sentence builder

sentence-builder-negativs

The following cognitive-comparison activity also models syntax through listening. Example: the teacher provides a syntactically incorrect L2 sentence resulting from literal L1-to-L2 translation); she then utters the correct L2 version; students to rewrite the wrong version of the sentence correctly.

Another useful task is ‘sentence puzzles’ – or any other task that requires students to rearrange sentences whose elements have been misplaced back into the correct syntactic order (intended meaning is provided). Such tasks enhance learner awareness of the importance of correct word order and can be used by instructors for inductive teaching by modelling correct syntax through the feedback given at the end of the task. A great follow-up to sentence builders.

Transformational writing techniques like the one described and discussed here, are immensely useful, too. My favourite one is sentence recombining. Example: students are given the sentences ‘My brother is annoying’  / ‘He talk too much’ /’He can be helpful at times’  and is given the following three words to merge the three sentences in one: although, because, also. Possible solution: Although my brother is annoying because he talks too much, he can also be helpful at times.

This is part of an exercise I gave yesterday to my year 10 Spanish class: merge the  following sentences into one ‘Mi barrio es ruidoso’ ‘Mi barrio está sucio’ ‘la gente es simpática’. Solution given by one student: Mi barrio es ruidoso y está sucio, sin embargo la gente es muy simpática’

Sentence recombining activities are useful because they involve reading comprehension, modelling, train students in the manipulation of syntax and focus them on form and word order whilst involving a degree of creativity, i.e. deeper processing of information (which enhances retention).

4.9 Forge fast and accurate spellers – spelling can require focal awareness in novice writers thereby undermining the accuracy of higher levels of their output. Hence, the importance of forging fast and accurate ‘spellers’ cannot be overemphasized if we are addressing deficits in our students’ writing performance. When the accuracy issues pertain to the spelling of agreement and conjugation ending the above problems are compounded by grammatical flaws in the output.

Minimal preparation activities include: old school dictations (keep them frequent but short), both full and partial; anagrams and gapped words from which the problematic letters/letter combinations have been omitted.

Daily low-stake spelling challenges (I avoid calling them tests) can be useful in enhancing the students’ focus on this level of writing if you are dealing with particularly sloppy or careless individuals.

4.10 Improve your students’ fluency – Fluency refers to the speed rate at which students can produce accurate writing. Get students used to writing under time conditions in response to an image or a brief similar to the bullet points found in the exam tasks. You may ask them to use a set number of tenses, connectives or opinions as you feel fit. Tell them that the more words they write and the wider their variety, the better. When you stage this kind of activities, grammar accuracy should not be a concern as the main focus is speed and variety of vocabulary exactly as you would do in speaking activities. Do correct their main errors if you believe they will benefit from it, but do not penalize them for making them.

4.11 Do more interactive speaking in class – At GCSE level the linguistic content and register of the students’ oral output will not be different from the written one, unless they are writing a formal letter. Hence, if their spelling is good enough, any work on their speaking fluency will result in gains in written fluency.

4.12 Promote effective editing and self-monitoring – Errors are often context-dependent. It is not by telling a student he has made a mistake and asking to self-correct or by providing a correction with rule explanation that they will not make that mistake again. If the mistakes relate to item ‘X’ (that they know the rule for) in context ‘Y’, they will only eliminate that mistake by practising the use of ‘X’ in context ‘Y’ time and again. What we can do, however, as an alternative to training them not to make recurrent mistakes again, is to train them to Self-monitor effectively by raising their awareness of the mistakes they make more often and by asking them to create a personalised checklists of mistakes to look out for in each and every essay. The students should be taught to review the essay (not ‘read’ it) by going through it several times, each time looking for a different issue so as to avoid cognitive overload. Example: noun-adjective agreement first, small function words second, omissions of verbs third, word order fourth, verb endings fifth, etc.

To sensitize students to the important of editing and bringing the issue of accuracy in their focal awareness, teachers will also stage frequent short and snappy error hunts whereby students need to find errors in model sentences provided by the teacher. A fun way of doing this is to write correct and incorrect model sentences on post-its that you will number and scatter around your classroom or the MFL corridor. Students will be given a set amount of time (I usually give them 10-15 minutes) to spot the post-its with the mistakes and correct them. The student with the most successful corrections wins.

Much more could be said about how to use feedback on error but I will abstain as I have already written way too much on this issue. The reader is invited to read previous blogs on error correction (here) if they want to know more – or our book, of course.

5. Concluding remarks

As I always reiterate on this blog, an understanding of the cognitive processes which underlie students’ performance in given contexts and skills is crucial if we want to address their deficits. In this post I have outlined those processes in their broad lines and suggested ways in which instruction can address them through a systematic and repeated long-term effort.

The main message is that we have to help our student-writers to automatize as many of the processes involved in the writing task as possible, especially those unfolding in the Translating phase so as to enable them to operate with  as light a cognitive load as possible. This will reduce divided attention freeing up more space in their Working Memory to deal with the aspects of production they find more challenging.

Ideally, most of the strategies I discussed above would be carried out from the very early stages of instruction. However, this happens rarely in English-based ML instruction, the result being very sloppy KS4 (KS4) and even KS5 (16+) students who have not been effective trained in writing fluently and accurately and exhibit little cognitive control and flexibility.

A final note: I do not believe that writing should take much of our classroom learning time; most of it should be flipped, unless we are modelling important writing strategies or we are carrying out one-on-one feedback/feedforward activities with our students. In my approach, however, as outlined in this post and, in greater detail, here, much modelling of writing and syntax can and should be done through listening-as-modelling activities as well as reading and interactive speaking. The key, however, for enabling receptive processing to effectively feed into student writing is to explicitly and vigorously foster Noticing.

2 thoughts on “12 strategies for enhancing intermediate language students’ writing

  1. In TPRS teaching the default verb form that is taught is the third person singular. So in Spanish we teach “quiere”, not “querer”. What do you think of that? I have found it to me more efficient in my classes, because it seems like that form is more frequent also then students don’t have to approach it like a process like 1) recall the infinitive 2) have to conjugate it. It’s more like vocabulary then.

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