The new breed of PARSNIP – hard to swallow?



English language teachers have been injecting PARSNIP flavoured material into their lessons for many a long year. As a fresh-faced young novice I was delighted to find inspiration in the form of Taboos and Issues: a selection of photocopiable lessons covering such conversational topics as death, prostitution, sexual harassment and animal rights.

Why PARSNIPS? Well, if we subject these taboo topics to the water cooler test they pass with flying colours. Who wants to talk about recycling and ethical shopping when you can discuss attitudes to plastic surgery and transsexuals?

What I used to like about PARSNIPS was the opportunity they offered for genuine discussion and dissent. As a teacher, I always felt it was my job to facilitate discussion and correct learners’ language. If a learner was laying down opinions using Yodish word order  – well, then I stepped in like a shot (or restrained myself until the feedback session, of course!). What I didn’t do was correct learners’ ideas.


Look out for a shiny new breed of PARSNIPS coming to a staff base near you! This should be something to celebrate, yet there is something about this new breed of root veg which has me longing for the older, earthier variety.

It seems to me that these new PARNSIPS are highly politicised. That is, they have less to do with sparking truly controversial discussions within the class and more to do with promoting the prevailing political orthodoxy.

This desire to promote a particular world view is peculiar to our current political climate. Unless you have been sleeping in your classroom cupboard for the past year then  I’m sure the debates about free speech (or current lack of it) will not have passed you by. The constant dread of saying the wrong thing and hurting people’s feelings has seeped into what was once an exciting and rather unpredictable element of English language teaching.


The appealing sounding new indie e-book PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol 1) does not, on first inspection, promise to help me step out of mine.

The Politics lesson looks at the case of Bronwyn Bishop, the Australian speaker who got caught up in an expenses scandal (she famously chartered a helicopter to get to a charity fundraiser). Frankly, I’m not sure if anyone would find the suggestion that politicians often misuse taxpayers money to be exactly controversial. The Alcohol lesson aims to help students “reflect on possible benefits and risks of alcohol drinking”. Meanwhile, the Religion lesson shies away from mentioning the dreaded r- word altogether, preferring instead to ask learners to list their opinions and beliefs (the tooth fairy is cited as an example).

Finally, the Sex lesson. This lesson aims to “reflect on cultural/personal values towards (homo)sexuality and homophobia”. It goes on to provide learners with a few different scenarios. Learners are then asked to decide whether these incidents are homophobic or not (according to the key they are all homophobic “in different ways”).

One scenario includes a girl who “pretends not to hear” the taunts of “gay boy” and “queer” which are directed towards her best friend. According to the key, this person is practising “silent homophobia.” Really? Might she not just be ignoring bullies (sticks n’ stones and all that) or trying to protect her friend from further strife? Furthermore, can a person whose best friend is gay be slapped with the label homophobic (defined in the OED as “having dislike or prejudice against homosexual people”)?


Blandness, playing it safe and correct answers keys are well and good in glossy ELT course books. But these are not the qualities I seek in a PARSNIP lesson. So, for the record, here’s my perfect PARSNIP wish list:

  • Parsnips topics should be open-ended. They should not contain keys telling you the “correct way of thinking”. Of course, keys for language exercises will always be welcome!
  • I teach adults, and I like my lessons to reflect this. I think that atheists should be able to handle discussing other people’s belief in God and I think that believers should be able to deal with the reality that many people do not share their beliefs. I don’t think there is space for the tooth fairy in all this.
  • PARSNIPS should incite controversy in the classroom.  The topics should polarize opinions. Learners might get angry. There may even be a few hurt feelings! *
  • There should be rich language input.
  • Discussion questions should be complex and grey areas within a topic or question should be acknowledged.

I understand completely why mainstream  course books have to play it safe for global markets, but if a PARSNIPS lesson does not result in genuine debate then what can?

*Obviously we teachers know our learners. I am not for one second advocating that vulnerable learners be made to feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment. But I think that adults can (and should) be able to cope with hearing opinions which differ from their own.

photo credit: <a href=”″>Borsjtj</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

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Inspiration from an ESOL needs analysis lesson

Part 1 and Part 2 of this mini series  focused on two of the places I find teaching and writing inspiration. This part looks at how needs analysis lessons can also furnish teachers (and writers) with fresh ideas and new direction.

Needs analyses forms 2014 - 2015 (UK only)

Needs analyses forms 2014 – 2015 (UK only)

I am no stranger to the needs analysis lesson. Over my seventeen years of teaching, I have earnestly distributed questionnaires and collected in papers umpteen times. I’ve always had the very best of intentions to process this data and use it to plan a term’s worth of useful lessons which cater to the range of needs and abilities within my class.

Often though, my good intentions at the start of the year have remained just that – intentions. As term goes on, I have failed to revisit the needs analyses and check that we are on track with accomplishing what the learners wanted to do. Sometimes this is due to the actual information on the needs analyses being less than useful. For example, if I ask learners the question: “What do you want to improve this year?” they (quite reasonably) write “my English”.  It’s hard to use this data in any meaningful way.

This year, I decided that I would go about constructing my needs analyses lesson in a far more methodical fashion. I compiled a list of questions. Some were open ended questions and some were statements which learners had to mark with agree, disagree or don’t know.

I won’t include my whole range of questions here, but here are a few to give an idea:

  • Why do you come to this class?
  • Do you study English out of class? If so, what do you do?
  • Do you speak English much out of class? If so, who do you speak to?
  • Are you happy with your job? If not, what would you prefer to do?

I distributed the questionnaires and asked learners to work in pairs and interview each other. I encouraged as much discussion as possible. After some time, I opened this up into a class discussion. Learners were asked to report back on their partners’ ideas. The reason for doing this was simple. If learners hear each other’s ideas and needs, they are more likely to tolerate the odd lesson which is not directly geared towards their needs. For example, if a learner has requested lots of speaking practice they might be a bit hacked off if the next lesson focuses on CV writing. However, if they hear Pascal say how he is unhappy with his present job and how he really needs to learn about CV and cover letter writing they are more likely to tolerate a lesson which does not necessarily tie in with the needs they expressed.

Discussing the learners’ needs also meant that should I mislay the completed questionnaires at any point (quite a likely scenario as I am in the process of moving house at the moment) I would have some kind of memory of what learners are wanting and needing to do.

My next step is to shape the results of the needs analysis into personalised learning plans for each learner. These plans will be distributed to the learners and discussed in December (when I hope to conduct informal progress interviews).

So, what did I glean from the needs analyses lesson?

  • Your learners can always surprise you even if you feel you know them very well. I learned that a young factory worker in my class  dreams of opening up a bar in Lerwick. He wants help with researching the local market and writing a business plan. I think there’s scope here for a really interesting series of lessons.
  • Classic ESOL topics which I have tended to avoid (because I feel they are a little boring and patronising for learners of this level (strong intermediate) scored high on the list of my learners’ priorities. Topics which were mentioned included making appointments, going to the doctors and making small talk at work. Many of these topics have been a bit “done to death” and can make dull and dry course book fodder, making me wonder (and here I have my writer’s hat on!) if there is room for fresh angles on these.
  • Pronunciation is extremely important to my learners. The need to “blend in” seems important. One learner tells me that it is not enough to pronounce the words “correctly”  – he wants to mimic the local accent and sound like a real Scot, rhotic rs and all! While I’m not sure this is a realistic aim, I’m looking forward to devising some activities around it.
  • All of the learners said they wanted to tackle a few creative projects this year and are interested in making a film together. Great news!  I’m thinking about finding a way to link this with the pronunciation aim (see above).

For some excellent needs analysis ideas see this great blog post from Alex Case.

photo credit: <a href=”″>Southland Paper mill, Kraft (chemical) pulp used in making newsprint, Lufkin, Texas  (LOC)</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

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10 minute wonders (or what manspreading and bookshelfies have in common)

A surgeon once said to me: “I could never be a teacher.”

Of course, I asked her why.

She said “When I’ve finished an operation, I can go home. I don’t need to fart around in the patient’s innards for 10 more minutes, killing time before the bell rings.”


Of course, this surgeon was absolutely right. How often does a teaching activity come to a natural conclusion which does not coincide with the official lesson end time? We all have our favourite “filler” activities, but to tell you the truth some of mine are beginning to seem just a little tired and predictable.

With this is mind, I am going to begin taking a note of any new and successful short “filler” activities I use in class and share them here.

Here’s one I used last week.

10 Minute Activity: Newly minted words

  • I wrote O.E.D. on the board and asked learners to tell me what this stood for (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • I then wrote down the following recent additions to the OED:

Mx (title)

Manspreading (noun)

Mansplain (verb)

Bookshelfie (noun)

Brainfart (noun)

  • I explained that the above words were all new additions to the OED. I then gave learners a minute or so to work in pairs to see if they could guess the meanings of these words. Listening in as I did this, I could hear one or two pretty good guesses! Overall though, learners were barking up the wrong tree.
  • After a minute, I dictated the following sentences for learners to write down.

Why are there only spaces for Mr, Mrs and Ms on this form? I’m Mx.

There’s a real issue with manspreading on the tube. I think these guys should pay for two tickets.

The mechanic helpfully mansplained the problem with my car.

Have you seen her latest profile pic? Nice bookshelfie!

Doh! I’ve just had a brainfart. What was your phone number again?

  • Learners then got back into pairs and used these sentences to help them refine their earlier guesses. This time they got a lot closer to defining the words accurately.
  • We then went through the sentences one by one, checking learners’ definitions against the definitions I’d found online. Many of these words yielded more than a little discussion and generated ever more language, e.g.: Did any of the learners have first-hand experience of having to deal with the issue of manspreading? (At this point I noticed a few of my male learners shuffle in their seats (they may have been discreetly closing their legs) while one learner remembered seeing posters on the New York subway advising men to “stop the spread”.  We also discussed what kind of people might take a bookshelfie. Academics? Writers? Posers? People who owned (but hadn’t necessarily read) the complete works of Proust?


At this stage in the proceedings, the clock struck eight. Home time. If it hadn’t, I might have asked my learners to  devise a simple story using as as many of these words as possible. I may then have asked them to mime their stories while the rest of the class watched, calling out the words as they occurred.

Watch this space over the coming weeks for more 10 minute wonders. And do feel free to share any of your own!

photo credit: <a href=”″>Maggie The Dentist ::: Tender little care</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

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Text appeal: finding online inspiration

In my last post I looked at how teachers and resource writers can find lesson inspiration from real life experiences.

What to do, however, when uneventful days and weeks pass? When nothing seems to happen, or at least nothing worthy of transforming into ELT gold happens? (Other people may experience a quite different problem. Their lives might be altogether too risky, colourful and edgy to pool workably safe resources from).

In either case, it is time to pay Mother Google a visit. Of course, the Internet is teeming with life: with texts, clips and images just crying out to be adapted to level and shaped into engaging and original activities.

Searching for ideas online is, however, fraught with danger: the greatest one being that we can get lost in all that glittering information and entertainment, only to come to our senses hours later with nothing at all to show for our wanderings (except for perhaps, a nice little frock purchased when we inadvertently stumbled upon a quirky online clothes retailer).

We need focus. The questions we need think about in order to do this are:

  • Where to start on our search?
  • What are we looking for?
  • What do we need to bear in mind?

The first two questions are relatively straightforward to answer.

Where to start on our search?

We start our search by finding all the articles we have bookmarked (either literally or virtually) over the past few months. We all do this, don’t we? I “favourite” tweets like mad, and then have splurges when I click on all these interesting sounding links, and begin the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Often, the articles don’t live up to their promise, but I consider it a job well done if I can use one article in ten or twenty. The next step is to shape these articles into something teachable, but as this series of posts is about the sources of inspiration (rather than the blood, sweat and tears of building texts around lessons) I’ll leave this for a later post.

What are we looking for?

Have you ever worked in an office? Have you ever taken part in a round-the-water- cooler chat? These chats are part of office life and usually focus on what someone has read (usually on Facebook) or watched on TV. Such chats are designed to relieve the tedium of office life and are all the more delicious for being snatched, rather illicitly, on company time.

So you’ve found an interesting text. But is it workable? Not sure? Then subject it to the watercooler test. If a group of tired, oxygen starved, brow beaten employees could potentially get volubly excited about it, then you may just have hit EFL gold.

Don’t know what the heck I’m on about? Well, look at this nugget from the paper we all love to hate.

Too many ELT writers (in my ‘umble opinon) look to the Guardian for text inspiration.  This may well be because it is the paper beloved of us kind, liberal teachery types. It doesn’t always cut the mustard though, in terms of water cooler debate. Is “Buy Nothing Day” a good idea? Should we recycle things? Well, if you answer “no” to either of these questions you may as well buy yourself a pair of horns and/or prepare to be publically flogged.

But on the other hand, consider the question: should people who do immoral things be named and shamed? A fantastic water cooler experiment topic: ELT 24 carat gold.

What do we need to bear in mind when sourcing texts online?


In my recent course book review posts, I noted that humour iwas sadly lacking.

Some may counter this claim by saying that humour does not translate easily. This is only sometimes true. I think the course book generated humour which has gone down best in my class is visual humour (comic details in paintings and photographs), amusing stories (especially those with a funny twist in the tale) and hammily acted, over the top “dramatic” listening scripts. The teacher may cringe at these, but in my experience, learners love them.

We need humour. A class without laughs is a sad, sad place. Before I am told that humor should be down to the teacher, I think I should point out that most teachers have quite enough to do without dreaming up jokes to add to their lesson plans. Look for texts and clips which have the potential to make people laugh.

The curse of coolness

Teenage students don’t look to their ELT course books for “coolness” – they want to learn English. They want to have fun, sure, but an ELT course book which tries too hard to be cool is like a Dad dancing at a school disco.

How can I, a forty year old teacher living on a tiny Scottish island even hope to tune into the urban teenage zeitgeist? I can’t, so best not to try.

I think teenage students can learn without overly cool material. I think they can learn better when they are not distracted by having to cringe.

Future proofing

I think that if we are trying to future proof material, we need to think about questions of perennial relevance. Obviously, celebrity culture and current environmental issues do not have this kind of longevity. I would like to see more philosophy in ELT books: more art and more literature. This does not need to be at all heavy. For example, philosophical input could come in the shape of interesting “thought experiments”. 

These thought experiments are wonderful – short texts, language rich and very rich in potential for follow up tasks. In my experience, teenage learners (and adults) love them.

Any thoughts?

I would be really interested to hear where other teachers and writers find their online lesson inspiration! As ever, please feel free to agree, disagree or question any of the above.


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Teaching and writing inspiration – Part One: Real Life

Would you like to see some of my holiday snaps?


Now, before you go thinking that the summer heat has nuked my poor wee sun-starved Scottish brain, let me reassure you that this post does indeed have something to do with ELT teaching and writing.

It is, in fact, inspired by a question I was asked at the beginning of summer:

How do you approach finding unique resources?

Interesting question, this. For me, the key word here is “unique”. As us old-timers know too well, there is nothing new under the ELT sun. The internet is buckling under the weight of “innovative” content, while new ELT publications jostle to be original and fresh.

This can be challenging for a writer at times. Yet dreaming up fresh angles on old subjects is one of the real perks of the ELT writer’s job (it beats the hard slog of actually writing things down on paper any day).

So, where does this inspiration come from? Where do writers find their ideas for materials? Where can teachers find fresh new texts and activities to try out in class?

My next few posts will have a look at some of the places I get inspiration for creative teaching and writing ideas. My first port of call is real life experiences. We are all unique so where better to find inspiration than looking at our own lives with all their twists, turns, peaks and troughs?

Real life material

The gorgeous snaps above are of a distinctly unlovely holiday apartment in France which my family and I had the misfortune of booking online this year.

As you can see, it wasn’t just the cleanest place in the world. The cutlery was so begrimed with engrained filth that we had to eat our breakfast in shifts, there were sinister stains on the ripped mattress protector which covered the (broken) bed and there were life forms growing on the bathroom walls. A lot of the furniture was held together with sticky tape.

We stayed one night. As soon as dawn broke I began phoning around to find a cleaner apartment. New accommodation secured, it was time to break the news of our departure to the landlady and (more importantly) get our money back. I called the landlady and explained the situation. She seemed to be surprised by my dissatisfaction and, rather grudgingly, agreed to come round and see what I was talking about.

Show time

Getting into situations like this provides great inspiration for teaching and writing. As I geared up to make my complaint, I realised how nerve wracking it is to complain in a language which is not your mother tongue. If I was making a complaint in English I might mentally rehearse what I was going to say, but this process would be a brief, almost subconscious one. In French, however, the rehearsal process was much more deliberate.

First of all, our children helpfully made a list of all the things I needed to mention.


Next I had to be sure I knew how to say these things in French. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember how to say “mould”. This wasn’t too much of a problem, as there was plenty on display.

I had to rehearse what I was going to say under my breath (in French, bien sûr!). I told my family what I was going to say (in English) so they could suggest any additions/modifications.

A knock on the door signalled the time had come. I launched into my prepared speech. While I was talking, I became aware that my mannerisms, facial expressions and very essence became altogether more Gallic. Being my phlegmatic, rather meek British self was not going to cut the mustard. It was not enough to speak French: if I wanted a satisfactory resolution to the problem I had to BE French. (We were, eventually refunded our money and deposit, so I think this must have worked.)

So, what does all this have to do with teaching and writing?

The experience made me realise how challenging such situations are for foreign language learners. I was very aware of the distinct process I had gone through: recalling the language I needed and then rehearsing it. Getting the intonation right was important, as was non-verbal communication (such as hand gestures).

Reflecting on the process I went through, I automatically began designing a lesson around it. Experiences like this can be a real gift for both ELT teaching and writing, as they provide a nice lesson shape on which to build content.

So in this case:

  • The images above (or images like them) can be used as a stimulus to generate language.
  • Certain phrases are also needed at an early stage of the process. It isn’t enough to know the word for “mould” or “urine stain”: standard complaint phrases need to be learned as well, for example: This is not acceptable, I want you to refund me my money etc.
  • It is not enough to teach the phrases and then let the learners loose on the situation (or even role-play). Learners need the opportunity to rehearse phrases too: paying particular attention to word and sentence stress, intonation and body language.
  • In any lesson on making a spoken complaint, role play would be a key part. Of course, the partner who is listening to the complaint should not be passive or overly helpful. They should be (as my landlady was) indignant, adamant that no one else has ever had reason to complain and quick to tell you that you are neurotic.

Looking to your own life for inspiration

What other real life situations have I used in the past to inspire lessons I’ve taught and lessons I’ve written?

What all these situations have in common is that the stakes are high. No one ever died from sending  a badly written postcard, or not being able to talk about their favourite food. But if you look at the situations above, there is a lot to be lost or gained which is what makes them worth teaching.

My next post will look at finding writing inspiration from online sources.

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My guest post on the MaWSIG blog

I’m back to work after a long summer break with lots of ideas for future posts (which I hope to have the time to write up very soon).

In the meantime, here’s a link to the MaWSIG blog. I’ve always found this a fantastic place for materials writing inspiration and information so I’m delighted to have a guest blog on the site (all about my experience of writing ELT materials for a Chinese publisher).

There’s lots of really useful stuff on the MaWSIG blog, so do check it out (if you haven’t already)!

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Lessons learned from the great ELT coursebook trawl

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been busy reviewing and road testing coursebooks over the past few weeks in a bid to get to the nitty-gritty of “What makes a good ‘un?”


I’ve been pondering this all week. As both ESOL teacher and materials writer I’ve been considering the question from two slightly different yet overlapping points of view.

These are:

  • Which coursebook best fits the needs of my multi-lingual ESOL learners? How can I adapt this material to make it work even better for them?
  • What has this coursebook-crawl taught me about materials writing?

Today, I’m going to focus on the second of these two questions. My blog’s strapline is, after all, “Ideas for ELT teaching and writing” and a glance at the previous posts reveals precious little on the latter theme.

So, what have I gleaned from all this reading and reviewing? In true internet flotsam style, here’s a list of 5 lessons I’ve learned. There are more, but summer is finally here and I have a tan to work on. *


1. Clickbait is Queen.

I came off Facebook recently. I am chronically weak-willed and waste far too much time being baited by articles containing interesting lists that I just have to read (5 ways to be more productive, anyone?).

I therefore hate clickbait with the dull anger of someone who has lost hours of their life to perusing it.

However, it works well for coursebooks. Why?

It’s accessible in terms of language and content, often funny and (crucially) it’s short. Clickbait reading text fodder needs to be a bit more than readable to work in an ELT course book though. The teacher needs to be able to link it to learners’ own experience. The topic of the text should also offer opportunities for further discussion and research. Finally, there has to be some payback for the learners: having made the effort to read the text, they should come away knowing something they didn’t know before (not always the case with some of the books I’ve been working with recently)


2. Worthy is not always worthwhile

ELT course book writers have worked hard to shrug off their “celebrity and consumer culture obsessed” image. After all, no one wants to read “Hello” style interviews with an ersatz version of Posh n’ Becks. Do they? Probably not…

Having said that, I do wonder if course books might be in danger of becoming a little too worthy. I was chuffed with myself for including an activity on Buy Nothing Day in a course book I penned last year (to be published later this autumn). Pretty original, eh?  I thought, patting myself firmly on the back. Then, last month, I opened up OUP’s new Navigate course to find a reading exercise on the very same topic.

To make matters worse, my learners didn’t seem very interested in the ethics of shopping at all. In fact, out of all the Navigate lessons I’ve taught, the one on ethical shopping seemed just a bit ‘preachy’. It seems a little as if the international thought police are now patrolling the streets of ELT. Where will all this lead?

Perhaps in a few years teachers and learners will be crying out for a return to a wee bit of glamour and conspicuous consumption.


3.Keep listening short, light and full of laughs

Listening texts work best when played multiple times. This just doesn’t work with longer texts – learners start to fidget and it’s hard to occupy the ones who feel they “got it” during the first listen.

Also (note to self and fellow materials writers) there is nothing like a humorous listening script – the coursebooks I reviewed were a little light on laughs. Learners feel proud when they get the humour in a script – it relaxes them and this helps them to listen more effectively.

When listening texts are airy, the tasks can be even more solid with plenty of opportunities for both repetition and the development of top down and bottom up processing.


4. A well- designed video lesson is worth its weight in ELT gold

Sounds like I’m stating the bloomin’ obvious here, but it has to be said. We all know learners enjoy watching videos. But a well designed lesson (rather than a hastily sourced YouTube clip with some discussion questions scrawled on the back of an envelope**) with a variety of comprehension and vocabulary tasks on an interesting subject really is a joy to teach.  Added to that, recent SLA research has shown the benefits of learners’ listening and reading subtitles simultaneously – possible with videos.

Hats off to the Life team for their great video lessons!


5. What is ‘real life’?

Looking back over my reviews, I see that I was frequently critical of the writing lessons. I have a thing for teaching writing, particularly “real – life” writing. On reflection though, what is ‘real life’ to my learners (CVs, council housing application forms, job application forms) might not be real, or useful, for yours.

However, it did strike me that the writing skill was, overall, a little underrepresented in all three coursebooks. GIven that we all spend so much of our time writing (texting, emailing, tweeting, messaging) I’m not quite sure why this is.

Well, that brings me to the end of the list. I realise this post has not even begun to navigate through the tangled undergrowth of second language acquisition, let alone tussle with grammar syllabi and lexical chunks. Perhaps next time…

The blog will be having a holiday until mid-August. Have a lovely summer everyone!

*Not so much work on a tan as make a vain effort to turn my poor lilac sun- starved Scottish skin a warmer shade of pink.

** I have NEVER done this, obvs.

Photo credits:

photo credit: N08/8689623437″>Crappie via photopin (license)

photo credit: N00/5162093700″>DSC07935 via photopin (license)

photo credit: N00/5286741251″>Op Art Holiday Card for Jeff Mahoney via photopin (license)

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