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Grammar Is One Of The Most Controversial Issues Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5428 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Grammar is one of the most controversial issues that has been debated along the history of language teaching and learning. The grammar debate has brought about two extreme positions "those who hold that grammar should receive a central attention to language teaching and those who hold that grammar should not be taught at all" (Mukminatien 2008: p.80). On this basis, grammar teaching has undergone a variety of changes that have influenced its role and status in second and foreign language contexts.

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In fact, all language teaching approaches ranging from the highly structural ones to the highly communicative ones, have assigned varying degrees of prominence to its teaching. Traditional teaching approaches namely the grammar translation method and the audio-lingual method emphasized the centrality of grammar to the extent that grammar teaching "had often been synonymous with foreign language teaching" (Celce-Murcia 1991: p.459). However, with the advent of the natural approach along the deep end version of the communicative approach, the value of grammar was undermined, based on the assumption that a good knowledge of grammar does not guarantee a good mastery of the target language and that language learners need to make sense of grammar rules in more communicative and interactive ways (Tütünis 2012).

Nonetheless, in the last two decades grammar has been reconsidered again in language teaching as being " an essential inescapable component of language use and language learning" (Burgess & Etherington 2002: p.433), that works hand in hand with meaning based instruction. Hence, the concept of "embeddedness" (Borg & Burns 2008) or the integration of form and meaning has come to the forefront of mainstream education, generating in turn a plethora of methodological taxonomies for the integration grammar instruction into the language learning process (Borg 1998). A persistent problem, however, as noted by Ellis (2006) is that no consensus exists among scholars about the extent to which grammar rules should be integrated within communicative based activities, leaving in turn the decision of what type of formal instruction works best for learners to the language teachers themselves.

Such an entangled situation, where grammar is taught in the absence of well-defined guidelines (Borg 1998), entails language teachers to draw on their educational repertoire or belief system, in order to reach intuitive instructional choices and practices. This is online with what Borg & Burns (2008) note in the majority of teacher cognition research studies showing that "particularly in the absence of uncontested conclusions about what constitutes good practice, teachers base their instructional decisions on their own practical theories" (Borg & Burns 2008: p.458). Concomitant with this assumption, a substantial body of research on teachers' cognition has proliferated, given the urgent need to gain deeper understanding and accounts for the ways teachers in general and language teachers in particular rely on their educational belief system to cope with the complexities inherent in the classroom setting.

Rationale of the study

Teachers' educational beliefs and grammar teaching are the two major areas of interest forming the incentive to undertake the present research project. To the best knowledge of the researcher, no study whatsoever has been carried out to explore Tunisian EFL teachers' beliefs about language teaching and learning, let alone studies on teachers' beliefs about grammar teaching. The disproportion of research projects devoted to investigate educational beliefs with a particular reference to grammar teaching and learning does not exclusively concern Tunisia. It is a prevailing characteristic of teacher cognition research in general that "little attention has been paid to L2 teachers perceptions of the role of grammar teaching in their work and to the manner in which instructional decisions regarding grammar teaching are informed by teachers' personal pedagogical systems" (Borg 1998: p.10). In this regard, this study has been conducted on the premise that it would fill the gap marked by the scarcity of research studies on the cognitive dimension of language teachers' underlying belief system of grammar teaching in the Tunisian EFL context.

In fact, a close scrutiny on teachers' belief system is imperative to unveil the frames of reference influencing teachers' perception and information processing (Clark & Peterson 1986). Besides, an exploration of these beliefs in relation to teachers' planning, decision making and instructional practices, is deemed to contribute significantly not only to the understanding of the psychological context of language teaching and learning, but also to the incorporation of successful educational reforms (Mohamed 2006).

The notion of belief endurance and belief change has further fuelled the interest to explore Tunisian EFL teachers' beliefs of grammar teaching. On a daily basis, language teachers are generally facing a dilemma of selecting the best choice among the multiple strategies, devoted for effective grammar teaching, even within one specific approach. The task becomes more daunting, when an innovative program comes into play. In this regard, language teachers share the responsibility of successfully implementing educational reforms proposed to them. One particular problem however, is that teachers' existing belief system may contradict with the premises of the new approach, and since "beliefs tend to self perpetuate" (Pajares 1992: p.324), language teachers are likely to maintain their grammar teaching beliefs in accordance with the old teaching approach. This happens most frequently when teachers support that approach either through their experience as language learners or language teachers (Zain 2006: p.6).

This tendency can be also attributed to the complex nature of belief system. Once educational beliefs are formed and incorporated into the teachers' existing schemata, they are likely to endure even when they no longer form an accurate reflection of reality (Nisbett & Ross 1980 cited in Pajares 1992). Educational innovations therefore, are expected to be successful, not only if they are implemented as part of the teaching program, but also when teachers' beliefs prove to be consistent with the theoretical underpinnings of these reforms.

With a particular reference to the teaching situation at the Institut Supérieure des langues de Tunis (hereafter ISLT), English language teaching had long been dominated by the traditional approach to grammar teaching. A paradigm shift has occurred, when the latter has been recently replaced by the integrative approach to grammar teaching instead. At the surface level, changing the grammar teaching curriculum logically implies that English grammar teachers act in accordance with the newly implemented approach. However, it is assumed that if these teachers still believe in the efficiency of the old approach, it is expected that they will show practices that fit closely to their existing belief system, instead of being consistent with the new approach. On this basis, this study has been conducted to explore not only English language teachers' beliefs about different approaches to grammar teaching, but also the extent to which their classroom practices are aligned with the premises of the new approach.

Research questions

What are 1st year ISLT teachers' beliefs about grammar teaching?

What are 1st year ISLT teachers' practices of grammar teaching?

How consistent are 1st year ISLT English grammar teachers' beliefs and with their grammar classroom practices?

Do the "experienced" and "less experienced" ISLT English grammar teachers have varying degrees of consistency between their beliefs and their classroom practices?

Thesis Outline

Chapter 2

Literature Review

2.1 Review of Teacher Cognition Research

2.1.1 Introduction

Examining teaching effectiveness was a major concern of educational research studies before the 1970's. A prevailing characteristic of research at that time was on associating teaching patterns with students' achievements (Borg 1999). As regard this approach, teaching was viewed "as a primarily linear activity wherein teaching behaviors are considered "causes" and student learning is regarded as "effects". This approach emphasizes the actions of teachers rather than their professional judgments and attempts to capture the activity of teaching by identifying sets of discrete behaviors reproducible from one teacher and one classroom to the next" (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1990: p.2).

However, a paradigm shift occurred, when teacher cognition as a research area came to the forefront of language teaching studies in the 1970's. Since then, teaching has been acknowledged as a "complex cognitive skill" (Leinhardt & Greeno 1986), which "can not be studied by reducing it solely to behaviors, observable phenomena, or investigations of what people do in the classroom (Freeman 1995: p.581). Teachers, in turn have been regarded as "active decision makers who make instructional choices by drawing on complex practically oriented, personalized and context sensitive networks of knowledge thoughts and beliefs" (Borg 2003: p.81). Consequently, research focus has shifted from investigating concrete observable teaching behaviors to "teachers' mental lives" instead (Clark & Peterson 1986).

Borg (1999) characterizes the emergence of teacher cognition which is a "new area of inquiry" (Allwright 1988, p.209), as a turning point in educational research, because it signaled "the emergence of an alternative conception of teaching as a process of active decision-making informed by teachers' cognitions" (p.22). These cognitions include the beliefs, knowledge, theories, assumptions and attitudes that teachers develop about all aspects of their work (Borg 1999). On this basis, teachers' belief system has been recognized as "the most valuable cognitive construct" (Pintrich 1990), whereby teachers analyze, interpret data and according to which they make instructional decisions in the classroom.

Based on the assumption that teachers' beliefs influence the acceptance and uptake of new approaches, techniques and activities, therefore guide teachers in their practices (Dhonague 2003). Research studies strongly suggest that these beliefs need to be explored, in order to pave the way for critical reflection and then implement necessary change for the instructional process (Dhonague: ibid). As Richards et al. (2001) point out that the study of teachers' beliefs seeks ultimately an understanding the ways teachers conceptualize their work (p.42). In this respect, Johnson (1994) summarizes three principal assumptions underlying research studies on teacher cognition. First teachers' belief system influences both perception and judgment. Second, beliefs help teachers process and interpret new information about teaching and learning and translate that information into classroom practices. Finally understanding teachers' beliefs is fundamental to enhance teaching practices and teacher education program (Johnson 1994). In much the same way, Borg (1999) states that "an understanding of the often implicit psychological bases of teachers' work is required if we are to go beyond a superficial behavioral conception of instructional processes" (p.22).Therefore, it is vital to explore both teachers' actions and the cognitions underlying these actions for a better understanding of the teaching process.

2.1.2 Exploring Beliefs

Although, there exists a wide range of studies investigating beliefs in relation to teaching practices, there has been an inconclusive debate regarding the nature and definition of a belief system. According to Mansour (2009), since teachers' beliefs are experience based rather than theory based, "beliefs can neither be clearly defined, nor do they have a single correct clarification" (p.35). In this respect, Borg (2003) argues that "the study of teacher cognition is generally characterized by a multiplicity of labels which have been posited to describe, wholly or in part the psychological context of teaching" (p.83).

In fact the psychological concept "Belief" has been described as a "messy construct" (Pajares: 1992), due to the fact that it has been equated and used interchangeably with a variety of labels in general education. These labels include; attitudes, values, axioms, opinions, ideology, conceptions, internal mental processes…etc (Pajares 1992: p.309). In the same way teachers' beliefs have been assigned a variety of labels in second language teaching studies such as 'teachers' perspectives' (Goodman 1988), 'implicit theories' (Weinstein 1989; Clark 1988), and 'preconceptions' (Wubbles 1992)…etc. Pajares (1992) contends that teachers' beliefs are difficult to investigate due to "definitional problems, poor conceptualizations, and differing understandings of belief and belief structures" (p.307). Clandinin & Connelly (1986) point out that the definitional confusion can be attributed to defining similar terms differently and using multiple terms to refer much to the same concept. This considerable amount of confusion about the concept "belief" is not only brought about by differing labels for this concept, but it also stems from the researchers' attempt to distinguish between "beliefs" and "knowledge". When comparing these two concepts, Mansour (2009) assumes that "while knowledge often changes beliefs are static" and "whereas knowledge can be evaluated or judged, such is not the case with beliefs, since there is usually a lack of consensus about how they are to be evaluated" (p.27).

Calderhead (1996) suggests that beliefs and knowledge are different because the former refers to "suppositions, commitments, and ideologies, while knowledge refers to factual propositions and the understanding that inform skilful action" (p.175). Unlike knowledge, beliefs are viewed as highly subjective, since they rely on affective and evaluative components (Nespor 1987, Pajares 1992). Likewise, Nespor (ibid) notes that belief systems differ from knowledge systems, in the sense that the former does not necessitate a general or group consensus to be valid or appropriate. Nespor (ibid) goes far as to assert that internal consistency of individual beliefs is not required for them to exist within the same belief system (cited in Pajares 1992). This implies in turn that beliefs are "very nature disputable, more inflexible and less dynamic than knowledge systems" (Pajares 1992: p.311).

Similarly, when examining the impact of teachers' knowledge of mathematics, Ernest (1989) comes to the conclusion that although teachers may hold similar knowledge about a subject matter, these teachers are most likely to teach and act in a totally distinct way (cited in Pajares 1992), thus asserting that beliefs have a stronger impact than knowledge, when observable teaching behaviors come into play. This view is further elaborated by Pajares (1992) who states that "beliefs are far more influential than knowledge in determining how individuals organize and define tasks and problems and are stronger predictors of behavior" (p.311).

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An opposite view however, exists among other researchers, arguing that there is no clear cut between beliefs and knowledge. Pajares (1992) admits that setting up a distinction between these two mental psychological concepts seems to be a "daunting undertaking" (p.309). Alexander et al. (1991) consider "beliefs" as part of our knowledge system stating that "knowledge encompasses all that a person knows or believes to be true, whether or not it is verified as true in some sort of objective or external way" (p.317). In one of his studies on ESL teachers' beliefs, Woods (1996) argues that the following concepts "knowledge", "assumption" and "beliefs" are interrelated in the sense that they do not represent distinct or separable categories; rather they should be regarded as points stretched along a continuum of meaning. Woods' definition of these concepts illustrates clearly how they are similar in many respects:

Knowledge refers to things we "know" - conventionally accepted facts. In our society today, for something to be conventionally accepted it generally means that it has been demonstrated or is demonstrable".

Assumption normally refers to the (temporary) acceptance of a "fact"…which has not been demonstrated, but which we are taking as true for the time being".

Beliefs refer to "an acceptance of a proposition for which there is no conventional knowledge, one that is not demonstrable, and for which there is accepted disagreement" (Woods, 1996, p.195).

When conducting his research study, Woods (ibid) noted that it was not feasible to establish a distinction between beliefs and knowledge when teachers were discussing their decisions in the interviews, in fact teachers "use of knowledge in their decision-making process did not seem to be qualitatively different from their 'use' of beliefs" (Woods 1996, p.195). On this basis, Woods (ibid) argues that the attempt to draw clear boundaries between knowledge and beliefs would be useless, due to the fact that these concepts prove to be strongly interrelated to each other. He suggests the umbrella term "BAK" (beliefs, assumption, and knowledge); in order to refer to teachers' cognition i.e. what teachers think, believe, know and do (Borg 2003). Lewis (1990) lends support to woods' conclusion and argues that due to the significant amount of overlap that characterizes concepts like beliefs and knowledge, one can deduce that these constructs are similar to a great extent.

Although the distinction between psychological concepts like "beliefs" and "knowledge" has been hotly debated in the literature, no consensus has been reached leaving the room for doubt about the very nature of these cognitive constructs and leaving the question of what really constitutes knowledge and what really constitutes beliefs, unanswered. As a result, this study has been undertaken based on the assumption that "the most simple, empirical and observable thing one knows will […] reveal itself as an evaluative judgment, a belief" (Pajares 1992: p.313), suggesting in turn that beliefs and knowledge are highly interrelated. Therefore, this study does not seek to establish in any way a distinction between "beliefs and "knowledge".

2.1.3 Defining Beliefs

Despite the fact that the terminological confusion has not been alleviated, consensus about the nature of "belief system" as a psychological construct exists to some extent among educational researchers. No particular definition or view, however, has had prominence over the other ones. Zheng (2009), for instance, defines beliefs as "a subset of a group of constructs that name, define and describe the structure and content of mental states that are thought to drive a person's actions"(p.74). Beliefs according to Richardson (1994) stand for "an individuals' understanding of the world and the way it works or should work, may be consciously or unconsciously held and guide one's action"(p.91). As such beliefs are recognized as powerful indicators of behavior (Pajares 1992).

Rokeach (1968) one of the leading instigators of belief research, defines belief as "any simple proposition conscious or unconscious, inferred from what a person says or does capable of being preceded by the phrase 'I believe that'" (p.113). Rokeach (ibid) postulates three principal assumptions about beliefs. First there are numerous types of beliefs such as descriptive or existential beliefs, evaluative beliefs, and prescriptive beliefs. Second the significance of beliefs varies from one individual to another. Finally, Rokeach assumes that the extent to which a belief is likely to change depends to a large degree on the centrality of the belief itself. The notion of centrality is further elaborated by Green (1971) and Pajares (1992) suggesting that belief system is composed of a combination of both core and peripheral beliefs. According to Green (ibid), the more central beliefs are i.e. core beliefs, the more difficult to alter. Peripheral beliefs on the other hand are more liable to be modified and implemented within instructional practices. However, Pajares (1992) rules out the idea that existing beliefs are subject to change, arguing that "beliefs are unlikely to be replaced unless to prove unsatisfactory and they are unlikely to prove unsatisfactory unless they are challenged […].Even then belief change is the last alternative" (p.321). This implies in turn that beliefs tend to endure even in face of counter arguments (Nisbett & Ross 1980).

Another way of conceptualizing belief system is to consider it as a cluster of subcategories of beliefs. In this respect, belief system is acknowledged as highly complex and intertwined network of underlying beliefs (Burns 1992). Beliefs are said to co-exist and interact with one another, even when they prove to be contradictory (Borg 1998).

Just as researchers have faced difficulties to define "beliefs", the same challenge encountered their attempts to conceptualize "teachers' belief system". Pajares (1992) argues that "since human beings have beliefs about everything" (p.315), it is imperative for researchers to draw a clear distinction between teachers' general belief system and teachers' educational belief system. When exploring teachers' beliefs, Richards (1998a) assumes that teachers' beliefs include not only information and attitudes but also theories and assumptions about all aspects of teaching and learning that teachers acquire over time and bring with them to the classroom. In as much as the same way, Murphy (2000) conceptualizes teachers' beliefs as "a complex and interrelated system of personal and professional knowledge that serves as implicit theories and cognitive maps for experiencing and responding to reality" (p.4). Murphy (ibid) goes further asserting that beliefs are tacitly held and are based on cognitive and affective components. According to Richards and Lockhart (1996), teachers' belief system is typically based on the goals, values and beliefs concerned with the content and the process of teaching, implying necessarily teachers' understanding of the environment in which they work and their roles within that instructional context.

When reviewing a plethora of terms employed to describe teachers' cognition, Borg (2006) comes to the conclusion that "beliefs are an often tacit, personally held, practical system of mental constructs held by teachers and which are dynamic i.e. defined and refined on the basis of educational and professional experiences throughout teachers' lives. These constructs have been characterized using a range of psychological labels […] which may often be distinguished at the level of theoretical or philosophical debate, but which seem to defy compartmentalization when teachers' practices and cognitions are examined empirically" (p.35). Pointing out to teachers' beliefs, Janesick (1977), employs the term teacher perspectives instead, defining it as "a reflective socially defined interpretation of experience that serves as a basis for subsequent action […] a combination of beliefs, intentions, interpretations and behavior that interact continually" (Clark and Peterson 1986: p.287).

When investigating beliefs in teacher cognition studies, researchers deduce that teachers come to the classroom with an already well-established set of beliefs that are said to serve as the basis for their pedagogical practices throughout their professional lives. As stated by Shavelson & Stern (1981) it is absolutely obvious that teachers are "rational professionals who make judgments and decisions in an uncertain and complex environment" (p.456). Kagan (1992) contends that the majority of research on teacher cognition provides ample evidence that teachers' beliefs are reflected to a large extent on their teaching styles. In this respect, beliefs are recognized to function as filters through which individuals in general and teachers in particular interpret new information and assign meaning to it (Kagan 1992; Nespor 1987; Pajares 1992). Zheng (2009) lends support to this view arguing that "beliefs are the permeable and dynamic structures that act as a filter through which new knowledge and experience are screened for meaning" (p.74). Nevertheless one of the major obstacles facing researchers when examining teachers' belief system, according to, Donaghue (2003), is that beliefs are subconscious and unobservable and therefore, difficult to elicit and recognize. Moreover, teachers may be eager to promote a particular image for themselves, in such a case it is very unlikely for teachers to articulate these beliefs as they really are.

2.1.4 Sources of Teachers' beliefs

Research on teacher cognition has identified a variety of sources that influence teachers' beliefs. A major source from which teachers in general and language teachers in particular derive their beliefs about teaching and learning is their personal experience as learners (Borg 2003). What Lortie (1975) called the "apprenticeship of observation" or the "vivid memories of instruction of 10.000 hours in classrooms that help new teachers determine what they want to be and do in teaching" (p.160). Freeman (1995) argues that the memories of instruction derived from 'apprenticeship of observation' act as de facto guides for teachers "as they approach what they do in the classroom" (p.11). In this respect, teachers build up their cognition about teaching and learning on the basis of their early life experiences as learners. These experiences exercise, in turn an impact on their cognition throughout their professional career (Holt Reynolds 1992; cited in Borg 2003). Clark & Peterson (1986) lend support to this view arguing that teachers' belief system stand for a rich store of knowledge from which "some particularly influential teacher produces a richly detailed episodic memory which later serve […] as an inspiration and a template for his or her own teaching practices" (Nespor 1987: p.320).

A study conducted by Numrich (1996) showed how novice teachers gave prominence to a particular instructional strategy on the basis of their positive or negative experiences of these strategies as learners. Teachers' preferences to integrate a cultural component in their teaching rather than teaching grammar or correcting errors is due to the fact that they perceived learning L2 culture as an enjoyable activity of their L2 learning, while regarding grammar teaching and error correction as negative experiences. Johnson's (1994) study yielded similar results. Teachers' decision making during a practicum was derived from their perceptions of classroom materials, activities and organization brought about their experiences as language learners. On this basis, Borg (2003) assumes that "teachers' prior language learning experiences establish cognitions about learning and language learning which form the basis of their initial conceptualization of L2 teaching during teacher education, and which may continue to be influential throughout their professional lives" (p.88).

Along teachers' "apprenticeship of observation", teachers' own teaching experience has been cited as a valuable source for shaping teacher cognition. According to Smylie (1994) teachers do not possess templates to guide their work. Teachers rely on past experiences instead and adopt their own ways of solving problems, "they develop their own solutions based on their personal understanding of the circumstances, an understanding that is rooted in their belief systems" (cited in Decker & Rimm-Kaufman 2008: p.46). In a study conducted to examine the origins of ESL teachers' views and beliefs, Crookes & Arkaki (1999) find out that "many of these teachers spoke about their teaching experience as being a personally unique and self-contained entity. It was a personal history of knowledge, and information gained through trial and error, concerning which teaching ideas (and their sources) were effective in which circumstances" (p.16).

Studies comparing experienced and less experienced teachers give insight on how professional experience may exert an influence on teacher belief system, leading in turn to changing cognition as well as instructional practices over time (Borg 2003). Nunan (1992), for instance reported a case study where less experienced teachers devoted too much time for classroom management; experienced teachers on the other hand were more concerned with language tasks. In this respect, Borg (2003) postulates that teaching experience gained through many years of instruction helps teachers assimilate and get rid of classroom management routines and give greater attention to the content of teaching instead. In other words, "as teachers develop their teaching skills, they are able to draw less on pre-active decision making and make greater use of interactive decision making as a source of their improvisational performance" (Richards 1998b: p.117-118).

Richards and Lockhart (1996) have proposed a number of other sources that are expected to have a direct influence on teachers' beliefs. Personality factors for instance contribute significantly in shaping teachers' beliefs, in the sense that teachers may opt for and promote a particular way of teaching, because they have a personal preference for a specific teaching method or activity. Drawing from educationally-based or research-based principles teachers shape their understanding of learning and teaching principles and try consistently to apply them in the classroom. In illustrating this point, Richards and Lockhart (ibid) reported a case of a teacher who strongly confirms this idea stating that "I took a course on cooperative learning recently. I really believe in it and I'm trying to apply it to my teaching" (p.31). Finally teachers may derive their teaching beliefs and principles from a particular approach or method, believing in its effectiveness as far as classroom practices are concerned and trying to select and implement teaching tasks that best aligns with the premises of the approach or method for instance implementing a communicative approach to language teaching or a process approach instead of a product approach when teaching writing.

2.1.5 Teachers' Beliefs and classroom practices

Dobson and Dobson (1983) argue that "value-neutral action and teaching practices do not occur in a vacuum". In other words, the way teachers teach and act in the classroom is certainly guided by virtue of their belief system. Many research studies recognize that the relationship between teachers' beliefs and classroom practices has proven reciprocal and inextricable (Clark & Peterson 1986; Kagan 1992; Pajares 1992; Shavelson & Stern 1981). Teachers draw upon their belief system in order to make sense of their instructional environment. In this respect, beliefs are reflected to a large extent on the ways teachers behave and interact in the classroom. Zheng (2009) views teachers' decision making as the link between thought and action. In the classroom setting, where teachers are faced with a plethora of options, they are required to choose the one that best suits the aim of the teaching activity and the learners' needs. This takes place most of the time when teachers rely on their belief system. In accounting for the ways teachers' beliefs interact with their classroom practices, Yero (2002) asserts that "if teachers believe a program they have been told to use is based on a solid foundation, and if the program is based on beliefs similar to their own, they will notice ways in which the program works. If they believe it is a waste of time, they will notice evidence supporting that belief" (p.24).

In fact teachers' beliefs are recognized as much stronger than research-based theory as far as teaching practices are concerned. Teachers' beliefs, according to Nespor (1987) "play a major role in defi


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