All Things Corpus!

The last TESOL Convention in Toronto seemed to be corpus-themed for me. I went to a number of sessions about using corpuses as a materials writer, as a teacher, and even having students use corpuses themselves. And I learned about some new corpus tools, new aspects of old corpus tools and lots of activity ideas.

And, yes, I’m just getting around to writing up things I did at TESOL. Better late than never.

Why Use a Corpus?

There were really three reasons I kept hearing that resonated with me:

1. Our instincts aren’t always right. Looking at how language is actually used is important because frankly what we think we know about language usage isn’t always correct. I suspect that as teachers, we tend to get a lot of textbook, overly formal input which biases our ear. We also aren’t necessarily talking to a broad spectrum of society (no one is in constant communication with speakers from all different regions of the country (or the world) of all socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds). We’re also aging while language is changing, like it or now. We’ve all seen those little fun facts about language. My favorite two are: Use of the subjunctive is growing in the US, not shrinking. The subjunctive is almost unheard of in the UK (even though we think the subjunctive is a formal tense and UK English is more formal than US English). If we want to give our students accurate knowledge about vocabulary and grammar use, it’s good to consult a source and a corpus is a nice source of language as it is used. We can then temper that with our own instincts and textbooks, but I know every time I look up a word in a corpus I am surprised by what I learn.

2. We discover patterns and rules we never realized existed. My personal favorite was the discovery that “due to” is almost always used with negative causes. We never say, “We are having cake due to Bob’s birthday.” We say, “We don’t have any cake due to shortages.” Stumbling on those kinds of collocations and associations helps you teach better and gives your students more of that instinct for language that we often attribute to being a native-speaker, those rules we understand subconsciously, but never really think about. That leads me to my last reason for using corpuses.

3. Students can use corpuses  Letting students discover language for themselves is a great way to impart those subconscious rules of language, yes but also to help them build vocabulary (through collocations and word families) and use vocabulary better through real-world examples.

Corpus Tools

  1. The biggest find for me was MICUSP, the Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers (Thanks to Ashley Hewlett). MICUSP is a collection of academic class essays from undergraduate seniors and graduate students. What makes it stand out are:
    • The search and filter functions let you search or filter by academic subject, type or genre of essay, native vs. non-native speaker, particular features of the paper (abstract, lit review, tables or graphs, etc.)What that means is that you can show students examples of argument essays in their own discipline. Or easily find a specific example paper meeting your requirements. You can have students compare argument essays in Philosophy classes with argument essays in English class, or compare an abstract of a critique with an abstract of a research paper. In this way, they can see how different aspects of the paper affect each other. Students can also see what kinds of papers are written in different fields and what kinds of papers are not written.
    • The corpus provides the full-text of the essay, not just the part where your keyword is.
    • Speaking of key words, you can search with or without a key word, so students can see how a word is used across disciplines or genres.
  2. Ashley Hewlett also mentioned the MICASE, the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, which I have used before because there are fewer corpuses of spoken English. Like MICUSP, MICASE has nice search options. You can search by number and identity of speakers (professor, student, post doc fellow, etc.), gender, age, location of the encounter (seminar vs. lecture vs. service encounter), as well as discipline. You can even search by the speakers’ L1s and the nature of the interaction–more monologue or more interactive. Again, it’s nice because it provides sources (in the form of scripts unfortunately). And the corpus is fascinating because even in an academic environment, the spoken language is still full of grammar mistakes, run-on sentences, fragments, false starts, and non-sequiturs.
  3. In another presentation in the Electronic Village, Jon Smart introduced me to AntConc, a tool that lets you build and analyze your own corpus. It’s not super user-friendly but it’s also not terribly difficult. If you collect a series of texts in seperate .txt files, you can use AntConc to search them for keywords, much as a traditional corpus tool does. I thought this would be great for collecting student essays in a class you teach year after year. After a few years, or semesters, you would have a nice set of student essays that you could let students search for language use or genre features. I was also playing with it by downloading the top 100 texts on Gutenberg press, which helps students see literary language in action.

In a later post, I’ll cover some of the activities that I saw.

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A Game for Learning New Words

A method for learning and retaining new vocabulary that you can use, or teach to your students. It has worked very well for me in moving quickly from exposure to a new word or chunk to using it well.

A method for learning and retaining new vocabulary that you can use, or teach to your students. It has worked very well for me in moving quickly from exposure to a new word or chunk to using it well.


  • To learn new vocabulary
  • To increase learner autonomy by giving students skills to learn and retain vocabulary on their own
  • To help students notice differences between the meaning and use, denotation and connotation of new vocab
  • To give students in-depth exposure to new vocab including listening, writing, defining, and speaking


  • Dictionary or Internet access
  • Exposure to English through fellow students, films, music, TV and/or books, magazines, and newspapers

Some people ask me how I learned Russian so fast. First, of course I had great teachers and second, since I am immersed in a Russian (and Kazakh) speaking region, I don’t have much choice–either I learn Russian or I don’t eat! But there are some tricks to learning language that can be very helpful and I’ll share with you here a little game I play with myself. I’m sure I was influenced by someone somewhere, so if anyone knows where I got this idea, I’d love to know.

Incidentally, thinking of this as a game or teaching it to students as something fun can be more motivational than making it a strict methodology. Have you ever learned a new word, or found about a new celebrity, and then suddenly it seems like everyone in the whole world is saying this word or talking about this person? Or you’ve had a conversation about some topic and for the next few days you notice that everyone else is talking about that very same topic? This is a cool and eerie, but very natural, side-effect of noticing. If students can tap into that feeling of wonder and strangeness while they use this method, it will make it a lot more fun and interesting for them.

The Method

  1. Pick a word or expression that you hear or read a lot but don’t understand.
  2. Look it up in the dictionary (or ask a teacher or friend) to get an idea of what it means.
  3. Write this word or phrase down in your vocab journal (or you might put it on your daily to-do list or jot it down in the book you’re reading). Just make sure you write it so it gets locked in and so that you remember to listen for it.
  4. Now, make it your mission for a week to listen and read for this expression. Every time you hear it or see it written down, pay attention to the meaning (not only the dictionary meaning, but any nuances or connotations you can infer), the context, any words or phrases that seem to go with it. If possible, write down (to the best of your ability) the sentences you hear this word or phrase it so that you have some authentic examples to work with.

    Some questions you might ask yourself: Is it used in formal or informal contexts? Is it used regularly with other words and phrases i.e. does it seem to collocate with other words (the dictionary might help you with this, of course)? Is it always used in one form i.e. a verb that is only used in the past tense or mainly used with negative sentences? What about mood? Is it used in funny contexts? Serious contexts? When someone is angry? Does its meaning change in different contexts?

  5. After you feel comfortable, try using the word or expression. See how people react when you use it, pay attention if they repeat what you said back to you. Did they change something? Don’t be afraid to ask teachers and friends to correct you or help you either.
  6. After a week, you should feel comfortable with this new expression and ready to learn a new one.
    One word or phrase a week might seem like very slow going and there is no reason why you couldn’t have a few vocab words in mind in one week. However, this method aims to give you very deep understanding of a word or phrase and notice that it is best used with commonly encountered words. If you tried to learn, “For sooth” like this, you would probably be out of luck because we don’t use, “For sooth”, very often.

    As a quick example, I applied this method to try to learn the Russian expression, “Vryad li”. I had noticed people saying it, but I couldn’t get the meaning at all! So I looked it up in the dictionary (which took some doing since I wasn’t sure how to spell it). I discovered it meant, “unlikely” “probably not”. I also noticed from the dictionary definition that it was idiomatic, in other words no point parsing the grammar (which would be the verb ‘to lie’ and a questioning particle).

    Then I started to actively listen for it. I noticed that it was always used to begin sentences. Sometimes it was used on its own. I started to understand that it meant something like, “It is unlikely that…” I further noticed it was only used in the present tense. It seemed like expressing that idea in the past tense needed a different form.

    Then I began to test myself by using the expression and watching how people reacted. If they corrected me, I paid attention. If they looked confused I tried to figure out how I had used it wrong. I probably played this game for 5 days, and now I feel that I understand “вряд ли (vryd li)” very well. Vyrad li I can use it like a native speaker but I feel comfortable with it.

    Hope this method works well for you and your students. As always, comments are greatly appreciated.
    Also for a more hardcore way to memorize and retain vocabulary, check out Jason Renshaw’s Word Wise approach.

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A Christmas lesson plan that discusses the American Santa Claus and his counterparts in other parts of the world. Since I teach in the post-Soviet Union, where Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, brings presents on New Year’s Day and has some other differences, I thought a comparison of Kazakhstan’s holiday traditions and American traditions was a good introduction to Christmas. But of course, you could compare American Santa Claus and Sinterklass or other variations in your students’ cultures.

A Christmas lesson plan that discusses the American Santa Claus and his counterparts in other parts of the world. Since I teach in the post-Soviet Union, where Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, brings presents on New Year’s Day and has some other differences, I thought a comparison of Kazakhstan’s holiday traditions and American traditions was a good introduction to Christmas. But of course, you could compare American Santa Claus and Sinterklass or other variations in your students’ cultures.


  • To discuss New Year’s and Christmas and other winter holidays
  • To promote fluency
  • To activate, elicit and teach Christmas vocabulary
  • To discuss the culture and traditions of Christmas in the West in a comparative context


Warm Up

Santa ClausShow them a picture of Santa Claus and ask them who it is. Then ask them what they know about Santa Claus. Don’t correct them at this point, let them discuss among themselves everything they know about Santa Claus and Christmas.


Now put a table up on the board with 3 columns. In the first column, write questions like:
When does he come?
What does he bring?
How does he get in the house?
How does he travel?
Where does he live?
Does he have family?
Who helps him?
How does he know what you want?
What does he wear?

On top of column one, write Santa Claus and on top of column two, write Ded Moroz or Sinterklass or whatever. Now discuss the answers to the questions as a class. Alternatively have students read the text, About Santa, and find the answers themselves. You could write up similar texts for Ded Moroz or other variations of Santa Claus and do a jigsaw reading where students in small groups read one text and then tell the other students about it.

Vocabulary Review

To reinforce vocabulary, hand out the Christmas flashcards. I recommend using only the flashcards that relate to Santa, and the words that came up in the lesson (North Pole, reindeer, presents, sleigh, chimney, fireplace/stockings, elves and so on). Call out a word and ask students to show you the picture of that word. Alternatively, use the word in a sentence or for higher level classes, give a definition or description of the word (How does Santa get into the house?). Get students to cycle through all the words.

Filler Questions

As part of the warm-up or as a closing, you can ask students what they want for Christmas or New Years, if they believe in Santa Claus, how old they were when they stopped believing, the best gift they ever got from Santa, the worst gift they ever got. You can also ask about family traditions, and what they are looking forward to doing for the holidays.

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Vocabulary Square

This is one of those activities I stumble on in my files and think, “Surely, I’ve posted on this before.” That’s because this is such a  productive way to review vocabulary–students have to think about the meaning, the part of speech, and how to use it. And it’s an activity that produces something you can hang on your wall and refer to later, or reproduce and give to students in the form of flash cards. Most importantly, students love it. I did this in class and the students raved about it so much to their other teachers that the whole school started doing it.

Vocabulary Squares are easy to make but they should be done only as review of a list of vocabulary words or as further practice when students know the words well enough to use them in a sentence. Otherwise, they can reinforce errors.

Making Vocab SquaresVocabulary Square

  1. Give students one piece of paper for every word you want them to do.
  2. Have them fold the paper in half and then in half again. When they unfold it, they will have a piece of paper with four sections.
  3. In the top left section, students write the word they are studying. It’s good to have them mark the part of speech, either explicitly or by putting “to” in front of verbs and an article in front of nouns.
  4. In the top right section, students should illustrate the word. For some abstract words, they might have to draw a scene or make a little comic strip or caption.  Remind students that they don’t have to be great artists; stick figures will do just fine. Optionally, I let students Google search an image as long as they are critically thinking about the image they choose rather than just printing out the first result. That defeats the purpose of having students reflect on the meaning of the word and using their visual brains to depict it.
  5. In the bottom left corner, students should write the definition and/or synonyms.
  6. Finally, students should use the word in a sentence or ideally, write a question that other students can answer which involves the word.

Note: As students are doing this, make sure to monitor and correct any mistakes. Also make sure students aren’t copying from a dictionary or using the word oddly, possibly confusing it with a synonym or related word. 

In terms of dividing the vocabulary, that’s up to you. You might have every student do every word on their vocab list. You might give each student one or two or three words. This can be a group activity. It can even be a station activity, where students rotate doing different words or different quadrants.

Using Vocabulary Squares

The activity of doing the vocabulary squares itself is a great review. It targets the definition, visual associations, context, and even spelling. However, there are also a number of ways to use it.

  1. Students can fold their squares so that only the picture shows. Then they pass around their squares so that other students can guess. Or they hang them on the wall and students walk around and guess the meanings before checking their answers.
  2. Students can fold their squares so that only the definition shows and pass around their squares or hang them on the wall for other students to guess the word.
  3. If more than one student is doing the same word, you can hang up the vocab squares for the same word and have the class decide which the best one is. Alternatively, each creator can present to the class on why his vocab square is the best. This activity should focus on the sentence and the picture.
  4. Cut up a set number of vocab squares and have students reconstruct them by picking out and matching the word, definition, picture, and sentence. Of course, to do this you have to use squares done by the same students. Otherwise, students can use the handwriting to match.
  5. You can hang the vocab squares up and have the students respond to the sentence, or answer the question.
  6. Finally, you can just hang the vocab squares on the wall to make a giant wall of review. My students often browsed my vocab square walls before class or before a test or quiz.


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Jabberwocky Jive

I can no longer find the original of this brilliant reading lesson that helps students use the dictionary, read creative writing, and learn to grasp the meaning of a text without knowing all the vocabulary words in a startlingly fun and very authentic way. But this is my favorite lesson plan in the world to teach!

It was called Jabberwocky Jive and I got the idea from the Cablevision education site, If you Google those things you find sites that claim to have copies of the .pdf file, but I haven’t found any that work. So I’ll summarize it here and how I use adapted it to an ESL class, but this is by no means my own original idea.

Note: This works best with advanced or high intermediate students. And the twist in this lesson is all of Carroll’s portmanteaus (portmanteaux?) that they couldn’t possibly know the real meaning of so they will be forced to guess from the context and the sound. Until you reveal that, you must play this as any other reading lesson with difficult words. It is really quite fun, but you have to measure their frustration. This can go well or it can be devastating to their confidence as they may think that their English is extremely lacking not to know these words. It’s a good lesson to do late in the term.

I have moved this lesson on the famous Lewis Carrol poem, the Jabberwocky to my Teachers Pay Teachers store. You can purchase and download it there.

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Thanksgiving Lesson Plans and Activities

from eyehook.comGetting ready for Thanksgiving? Here are some of the lesson plans I like to use to teach Turkey Day.

  • The Food Lesson Plan gives students a chance to talk about their national food, then gives you a chance to discuss Thanksgiving and the traditional foods we eat on that holiday. Finally students get talk about their special holiday meals. It’s a great way to approach Thanksgiving with international students because they may not know a lot about this primarily American holiday, but they do know how to talk about food. It’s also a topic that is accessible to advanced, intermediate and beginner students.
  •  My A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving lesson plan is another great activity. The video does a great job of introducing the pilgrims and the Native Americans, the first thanksgiving, the religious side of this holiday, as well as turkey and mashed potatoes, and even the football game! You can also have fun introducing the Peanuts characters and plot items like Linus’ blanket, Sally’s crush on Linus, and Lucy always pulling away that football. I’ve designed two worksheets: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Comprehension Questions that can help students keep up as they watch or test how much they retained. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Summary is a guide for teachers that summarizes the major “chapters” of the movie and some words or phrases or slang that students may have trouble with. You can use it to break the viewing into parts, or to pre-teach some vocab you think students might need to know. Or ask students to make their own outline of the video and then compare it to your outline.
  • Finally another original lesson plan I love that introduces persuasive writing to Thanksgiving is Turkey Writing by Boggles World ESL. Students imagine they are a turkey on Thanksgiving and must come up with good reasons why they shouldn’t be eaten!
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Predicting Vocabulary Worksheet

We all have our exercises for helping students predict vocabulary from context, and it’s nice to give students some practice with an authentic text. I wrote about the process I use for students to help them guess the meaning of a word from context and I mentioned a worksheet I used to have. Well, I never found it or the book I got it from, but I needed to do this lesson recently, so I made up a new worksheet for predicting vocabulary.

The feature that I like to add, one that is sometimes overlooked, is the check-box where students say whether or not their guess was enough to comprehend the article. Because we often tell students that they don’t need to know the exact dictionary definition of the word in order to get the reading, but it’s nice to give them a chance to reflect on that. And also to acknowledge that sometimes you DO need to know the exact meaning of the word. Or sometimes your guess is good, but there’s simply not enough information in the article for you to understand the word in question. So we need to give students a chance to say, “No, I didn’t get it. I know this word is some kind of animal, but I need more information to understand the author’s point.” That’s ok, too. That does happen.

So please, let me know what you think and check out the earlier post for how I use it.

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Target Vocabulary Questions

This is less of a coherent lesson plan and more of a series of related activities to recycle or review vocabulary through questions that drive the student to use the target words or phrases.  Teaching vocabulary is difficult because it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what learning or knowing a word really means, let alone how we evaluate when a student actually knows a word. As much as possible,  I like to give students the chance to be exposed to and use the vocabulary in a meaningful context. Asking and answering questions that authentically use the vocab is a great way to do that. Questions also lend themselves to incorporating other learning points like grammar, language style, or content. So here’s a few ways to do it.

I. Simple Vocabulary Questions

The simplest way to review or test vocabulary knowledge with questions is to give students questions that have the vocabulary in them, which sounds fairly obvious. See the image below for one example:

SimpleVocabQuestionsIt seems straightforward enough. But there are a few important points for writing good questions .

  1. The questions should use the vocabulary authentically. There’s no point in giving the students input if it isn’t good input. And students can pick up a lot from context, consciously and unconsciously including the most commonly used form of a word, the register and collocations. All of these are things that will help them later. And all of these tend to be things that students get wrong when using a new vocabulary word. For example, while “inflict” means to cause, it is really only used with negative situations and it generally collocates with a handful of words. A question like, “What do you enjoy inflicting on others?” is not going to help students learn to use the word correctly.
  2. The questions should help the student reflect on the meaning of the word in some way. Depending on the part of speech, students should be asked to give an example, or reflect on a nuance of the word, or relate it to a synonym or antonym, or discuss the word in some authentic context.
  3. That being said, you also need to consider what kind of knowledge of the word the student needs. Do they need to be able to recognize the word, grasp vaguely what it means, use it in a set chunk, or write and speak it clearly with 100% accuracy in all situations?
  4. Consider bolding or underlining or italicizing the word in some way so that students notice it.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid to sneak in grammar review and content review by making the questions also feature a particular grammar form or relate to the theme of the unit you’re doing. This is especially easy if the vocabulary is on a particular topic. However do be sure that the questions aren’t taken directly from the book or already covered elsewhere so that students are sick to death of saying what their favorite food is or why salt is bad for you or whatever.

II. Question Dictations

Even if you can’t relate your questions to another topic, you can get in a bit more speaking practice, not to mention practice asking  for clarification by having students dictate the questions to each other before discussing them. Here’s an example of the Vocab Dictation Game. You’ll see a teacher’s sheet with all the questions that feature the target vocabulary and then a sheet for Student A and a sheet for Student B.  Basically each student has half of the list of questions and they need to take turns dictating their half of the questions to the other student. This is a great way to increase student talk time, force them to pronounce the word, and hear it, and also a chance to practice survival phrases like,

  • What did you say?
  • Can you say that again?
  • How do you spell it?
  • What did you say after “blue”?

Obviously to be done right, students should not see each other’s papers until they have finished dictating the questions. Then they can check if they got everything down correctly before discussing the questions.

III. Simple Vocabulary Answers

Obviously, if students are answering questions that use the word then they are recognizing the word and what it means. However, they may or may not use the word in the answer. If you do Question Dictations, then at least they are speaking the word. However that doesn’t mean they’re getting meaningful practice with it.  So one variation is to in some way force students to use the word in the answers as well as the questions.

A nice way to do this is with prompts:

VocabAnswers So here, I’m demanding that the students use the target idioms in their answers. The trick to doing this is to give authentic questions and imagine authentic answers–without forcing an answer. I think if you look at questions 5, 7, and 8, I’m basically forcing the student to give an answer of my own devising. #5 is pretty much set up for students to say something like, “You have to narrow down the textbook by underlining what’s important and what’s not.” Or, “You have to narrow it down to what you think will be on the test.” And that may not be the student’s strategy, so this is a bad example. Or a good example of what not to do. Because you want students to be focusing on expressing themselves with the language and not trying to read the teacher’s mind.


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My Post-TESOL Reading List

I know I just got back from the TESOL Convention in Portland last night (to encounter a flooded backyard and happy ducks because I didn’t get enough rain in Portland), but I feel like if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it. I met a lot of new people and saw so many new books and got a million new ideas. In short, I have a huge new to-do list!

So I’m putting up my list of books and articles and blogs that I discovered at TESOL that are going on my to-read list. I’d love to hear your comments on my list and your own lists too! I’ll also keep updating this list as I meander through the catalogs and all that I brought back with me. Fair warning, I dug pretty heavy into the materials writing side of things. I’d also like to note that this is a DREAM list, not what I will actually have time to get to. And a lot of these are edited volumes so it’s not like I plan to read every single essay and article!

Materials Writing Stuff

Language Teaching

Coursebooks to Check Out

Teacher Resources and References

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Predicting Vocabulary from Context

I had a really nice worksheet that I liked to give to students to help them predict words from context. It forced students to actually write down the sentence that the word came from which I really liked. Using context to predict or infer the meaning of the word is an important skill. However, realizing that context is an important part of a word’s definition is also important. Remembering how  a word is used in a sentence helps students use it to—it gives the part of speech, spelling, collocations and topics, sometimes connotations.

I have long since lost the worksheet, which was copied out of a book I would happily give credit to if I had it. However, the activity went like this:

  1. As students read the book, they look for a word that they do not know.
  2. Students write down the word and the sentence they got the word from.
  3. Students then write down what they can glean about the word from the text. These guesses might be as simple as, “a kind of animal”, “it lives in Africa.” Or “adjective”, “something bad”. Nobody expects them to actually guess the word.
  4. After students have read the text or passage, ask them to reflect on whether their guesses were enough to read and understand or not. In other words, were they able to understand the rest of the story despite not getting this word or was there something that didn’t make sense because they didn’t know this word? This takes some reflection on the part of the student. A good example of a word that you don’t need to know exactly is jaguar in the following (made-up paragraph):

    The two hunters looked for the jaguar in the trees. They knew the jaguar was dangerous. It could easily kill them with its teeth and claws if they didn’t shoot it first. Suddenly, they saw its black fur against the green leaves. John fired his gun and the animal fell from the trees.

    A jaguar is a big, black scary animal. That’s enough to understand everything that happens in the story. On the other hand, you would need to know what Keynesian means in this passage:

    Keynesian economics has been proven correct a number of times. Its central tenets explain the Great Depression and the success of the recovery. However the current government ignores Keynesian economics in favor of supply-side economics.

    In this case, the writer is assuming you know what Keynesian economics is and is getting into nitty gritty details of it. It will probably only get worse as you read.

  5. Now have students look up the word in the dictionary.
  6. Finally students can go back and circle elements of the sentence that support the definition.
  7. Now students have a new vocabulary word with an example sentence and a definition!

This has really worked with me and my students.

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