I teach grammar.

Grammar.

You just cringed; didn’t you?! I knew it.

Should I teach grammar explicitly in my world language class? Second Language Acquisition Theory Comprehensible InputGolly there seems to be a lot of discord in the virtual realm lately—lots of professional disagreement about many different aspects of language teaching; but nothing that seems to bring out the war cries like a good old-fashioned mention of grammar. As Justo Lamas croons in Cielito Lindo, my thoughts on the topic can be summed up as “¡Ay ay ay ay!”

In Thursday’s Tea with BVP session on the topic “Does Explicit Language Teaching Do Anything?”, Bill framed the options in the conversation on the role of explicit grammar instruction in second language instruction as “Teaching grammar is harmful” and “Teaching grammar is helpful”. In the context of Thursday’s show—the specific questions that were asked by callers—it made sense for him to make the conversation black and white. Krashen and others have been showing us for years that explicit language instruction does not a language speaker make. The best use of our class time is NOT explicit language teaching (meaning teaching about the language); the best use of our class time is comprehensible input. It is flooding our students with language at i+1 so that the complicated web of language in their heads grows and becomes more interconnected. Explicit instruction does not—cannot—will not—supersede the order of acquisition. So no, teaching grammar is not helpful to language acquisition. Four decades of SLA research have demonstrated that language is not built up from practice, but consistent and constant exposure to input. Input is indispensable to language acquisition and cannot be replaced by practice.

Well, that’s what the research says…so why are we having this conversation?

I think it’s because we are language teachers. Most of us love language. We enjoy learning grammar rules, even though we realize that the saying “rules were made to be broken” is more true in language than anywhere else! Many of us feel like we benefited from studying grammar at some point in our careers. I liked memorizing rules and applying them correctly. My study abroad roommate (also a future Spanish teacher) and I liked it so much that we had the on-site study abroad coordinator design a grammar course for us and we voluntarily met with her twice a week to do grammar lessons. And we asked her to give us homework. Did it help me to acquire the Spanish language faster? Nope. But was it helpful? Well…yeah, it was! So if it didn’t help my language acquisition, in what way was it helpful to me?

Well I will tell you what I think. And let me just say right now—I reserve the right to be wrong. Please do respectfully disagree with me and challenge me. Everything that I post is subject to change as I learn more.

The Monitor Hypothesis, that’s what I think. If you have never heard of it, here’s the Cliff Notes from Martina: The Monitor Hypothesis is one in a group of five hypotheses developed by Dr. Krashen that are collectively known as the “Input Hypothesis” and form the theoretical basis for teaching with comprehensible input. The Monitor Hypothesis is what I would consider to be the “weakest” of the five: not in that it is not theoretically supported as well as the others, but in that each of the other four provide teachers with clear information that “if [x] then [y]”, and the results are consistent.  For example, the natural order hypothesis: we acquire (use correctly and consistently) different features of language in a particular order, and nothing can change that order. See this helpful handout from Susan Gross for more about the order of acquisition. The Monitor Hypothesis…well…there are a ton of different stipulations and limitations on it. Basically, it says that the only benefit of consciously learning language—being taught rules and the correct way to say things—is to ‘monitor’ language that was acquired effortlessly; language that was learned without instruction. But just because it CAN serve that purpose doesn’t mean that it DOES serve that purpose. That’s what I mean when I say that it’s the “weakest” of the five hypotheses. With the other hypotheses, you could say “keep the kids’ affective filters low, and they’ll be able to acquire language”, or “Flood the kids with natural, uncontrived input, and they’ll acquire the language accurately, naturally”, or “Provide the kids with input that is just above their current level, and they’ll acquire language”, or “Expose the kids to [comprehensible] language, and they will naturally acquire it sans instruction”. But the Monitor Hypothesis is different. Even though it says that receiving explicit language instruction can serve the purpose of monitoring acquired language, it doesn’t say that learning a rule will make the learner apply the rule and improve accuracy. There are lots of stipulations: most significantly, time is required for the learner to apply the rule. Learned rules rarely monitor spontaneous production. And they really only monitor what has already been produced—so once you’ve said or written something, you think about it and the rules that apply to it, and correct yourself if needed. But it doesn’t really monitor language pre-production. Also, high aptitude learners are really the only ones that do any monitoring at all: aptitude correlates with conscious learning but not with acquisition, so truly explicit language instruction is only going to help your high-aptitude learners—your lowest aptitude learners will not monitor their language even if you give them rules. And…and…and. So you see…learning rules in order to monitor language…well, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Now, back to me. I said that learning rules didn’t help my language acquisition, but that it was still helpful to me. Why?? Because I was a strong case for the monitor hypothesis. I was a highly motivated language learner. My roommate and I literally signed a contract in blood with my professor before I went abroad saying that we would not speak English together (yeah, she was crazy). We were on a mission to learn Spanish. I aimed for perfection. I got an intercambio (an exchange partner), and we met several times a week to improve my language ability and hers in English (we alternated the language in which we spoke from meeting to meeting). I convinced someone to teach me grammar rules. I painstakingly edited my papers. I begged my professors to use the red pen. And you know what? By golly, it served a purpose. My conversational fluency is not amazingly accurate in Spanish. But my written production is pretty darn great. Not perfect by any means, but it’s really good. And when someone brings to my attention a mistake in something that I’ve written, it’s usually a mistake that I “know”, I just missed (monitor hypothesis fail!). When I provide my students with comprehensible input in class, I am confident that the input with which I provide them is accurate even though I am not a native speaker.

So how could I classify explicit instruction of rules as categorically “harmful” or “helpful”? It’s complicated! For most students, it’s not helpful. Most students are not like me. I am the minority! So it is definitely NOT the best use of my class time to teach explicit rules.

But some students are like me!! And we talk about differentiation and how important it is…and certainly there are many different ways to differentiate within the realm of CI. This is one of the reasons that TPRS®/CI is a no-brainer for teachers that are “stuck” with multi-level classes. Teaching rules explicitly is neither the only nor the best way to differentiate for high-aptitude, highly motivated learners, but it is a way. And so I do teach explicit grammar lessons. I don’t do it often, I don’t do it for long, and I only do it after comprehensible input. If I teach a 10-minute explicit grammar lesson once every two or three weeks—less than that in Spanish 1—to expose a pattern that students can already interpret and possibly produce with some accuracy…well, I don’t think that is harmful to anyone! And I think that it is helpful to a small group of students.

Other teachers are going to disagree with me on this—teachers that I generally agree with. And that is okay! Knowing how language is acquired gives us the freedom to teach in the way that makes the most sense for us and our students. We have our own ears, our own eyes, and our own minds. We don’t have to arrive at the same conclusions! It is okay for us—it is okay for YOU—to use professional judgment to do or not do or use any given activity or strategy in your language classes. What is NOT okay is digging in your heels and committing to a specific position when you have no stinking idea what the research says, or even sticking to a specific position when there is no research to support it. I have concluded that teaching extremely limited grammar lessons does not fall into the latter category: I think that there is research that allows for limited grammar instruction, even in a ‘best practice’ classroom.

Oh man, I feel like I need to add so many disclaimers. Do not DO NOT DO NOT use this post to defend traditional grammar lessons. I would not ever teach a grammar lesson like the ones that I had throughout my language career (even though they were effective for me, the future Spanish teacher): lessons that introduced a new construction or ‘rule’ and then followed that introduction with drills and “contextualized” (ha, ha) practice. If there is no communication (as defined by VanPatten, communication is the “expression, interpretation, and/or negotiation of meaning in a context”) there is no acquisition. Traditional practice, therefore, can only result in language-like behavior: it will not result in language acquisition. I believe that explicit language instruction becomes categorically harmful when we give the rule and then follow with practice. It’s confusing, it’s hard, and it’s unnatural. It raises the affective filter, and low aptitude students are put at serious risk for failure. This is part of the reason that traditional language programs have such a low rate of retention! Since explicit language instruction is “maybe helpful to some” at best, you have to be really, really judicious about its inclusion. In some classes, you might skip it altogether. Do not use this post and say, “Look! Martina does it! It is okay!”. I do a lot of things wrong, and this might be one of them. You need to do the research and arrive at your own conclusions. And yes, your research might involve trying out “flipping” a traditional grammar lesson (working with the construction first, naturally, and then following with exposition). But your conclusions on this topic need to be your own.

When Bill VanPatten was up here in September for our state conference, he had much to share on this subject. One of my favorite quotes was, “Your students aren’t going to die if you do traditional practice, but there are better ways to spend your time”. It’s like eating one of Cynthia Hitz’s Oatmeal Creme Pies: you’re not going to die if you eat one, but don’t make it a daily ritual. Since they are really freaking tasty and I only get to eat them when I see her at conferences (not often enough!), I indulge when I can. Same thing with grammar lessons: they are really tasty to some kids, and so I offer them from time to time. But don’t take what I serve as a tasty treat and turn it into a main course for your students!!!

So all of that being said, let me give you a few examples of “grammar lessons” that I teach: while all of these are for-sale units (not free), I will try to write them up in a way that allows you to understand what a grammar lesson in my class looks like and gives enough detail for you to be able to re-create them in your classroom:

  • My entire Spanish 2 curriculum: In each unit, we use a story script that targets a specific past tense form (-ar regular verbs, -er/-ir regular verbs, i-y stem change verbs, etc.: all of the scripts are available for free in both Spanish and English and linked in this curriculum map). Basically, the target structures for each story belong to the same grammatical category. So by the time that we are done story asking and doing all of the follow-up activities, students have seen the different past tense verb forms in that category many, many, many times. I’ve also used pop-up grammar to highlight them quickly during story asking and activities. So after the story and activities, I tell students “I’m going to tell you guys a little more about how these verbs work in the past tense. If you don’t care, don’t worry about it. Fill in the notes along with us and then erase this lesson from your memory. You have already shown me that you understand this stuff because of [what you did in activity x]. But if you want a little more info, then this is for you. Then, I give students a quick, one-page fill-in notes sheet and they see a verb chart (yikes!). And then we follow it up with more comprehensible input—NOT with grammar drills. We might do additional activities for the same story, or we might do a different reading or Movie Talk that targets the same category of verbs. And that’s it! No drills. No grammar test. No accountability. We just move on to the next unit! Students deepen their acquisition of those constructions that I’ve taught explicitly through more comprehensible input, as the constructions appear naturally throughout the remainder of the school year. They do not deepen their acquisition or improve their acquisition through further practice because we don’t do practice. Practice does not result in language learning: comprehensible input results in acquisition.
  • This lesson about Bolivia: I wrote about Bolivia from the first person perspective. I guide students through the slideshow reading that talks about “my country”, “our town”, “the Quechua people’s flag”, etc. Then, we do a bunch of follow-up activities for comprehension and application. Then quick grammar notes. Then more about Bolivia. It’s a grammar sandwich, and CI is the bread. Just make sure you think about it like a kid’s meal hamburger in which the filling (the grammar) is pretty much not existent, and you’re really just eating bread with meat flavor (CI with a hint of grammar).
  • This lesson to learn the Voz a Voz song “I Swear”: There are many songs that naturally contain repeated instances of a specific construction. Check out Sharon Birch’s ridiiiiiiiiiculous Spanish music database for examples. All you need to do is find a way to comprehens-ify the lyrics, then you can use that song to target the construction effectively. (I used to think that giving students a CLOZE lyrics sheet and calling it a day was targeting a construction effectively…*shivers*). For this lesson, I do an extensive Three Ring Circus meets Mad Libs meets story asking activity to make the lyrics comprehensible to my students. Line by line, we work through the Spanish lyrics in the song that contain future tense verbs. The series of lines form the “story script”, the future tense verbs are the target structures, and the details are determined by the class. To make it a three ring circus, I have three students compete for the affections of a fourth student (essentially each make a different promise or proposal to the object of their mutual affection). After I’m done with the whole lesson, I can show the students a verb chart with confidence that it will not be harmful to my students that are not like I was as a language learner. It’s not intimidating because it’s giving them information that they already know. It’s just putting words to what is already in their heads. And if they don’t want to put what’s in their heads into words, I don’t care. I don’t make them. They will never have a grammar test in my classes. NEVER. Some kids might use the knowledge to monitor their production from time to time, and others won’t. And either way, that’s just fine with me.
  • This lesson about the Six Degrees of Separation: After we have targeted the verbs “saber” and “conocer” in separate units in Spanish 1, I use this lesson to juxtapose them. It is best to teach similar concepts at different times and then to later expose the differences in usage (this is different than the presentation in most textbooks). In this lesson, students learn about “Bacon Numbers” and the theory behind it in order to see “saber” and “conocer” used back to back to back to back. Remember, this is after they have acquired each structure individually! Then I give them quick notes highlighting the definitions of each verb. Then we do stations, and students work through a series of six input-based stations in which they read even more contextualized instances of the two verbs.
  • This crime scene lesson: We target the “estar + past participle” construction using a crime scene investigation (click here to see a description of the activity). I use closed-ended questions to help the students express their observations (Is the window open? Are the books organized? Is the computer broken?), we draw conclusions and support them with evidence (the criminal didn’t leave through the window because the window is closed), I give notes, and students work through a series of activities to get more input and eventually draw their own conclusions about who committed the crime.
  • See all of my grammar lessons here

Now, all of that being said…I’m excited that I’ll be seeing Dr. Krashen and Dr. VanPatten this week at ACTFL and that I’ll have a chance to talk about explicit language instruction (and all things language acquisition!) with them. Tea with BVP will be recorded live in the Social Media Lounge on Saturday at noon, so you can listen live at the 3:00pm EST/11:00am AKST. He’s planning to continue the topic of explicit language instruction, and I can’t wait! I might have to delete this post next week…but for now, I’m going to keep feeding the occasional grammar flavored sandwich to my students.

17 comments

  1. Hi Martina! What a super interesting post! I always find myself in crossroads with the grammar topic. I am so glad you mention “Knowing how language is acquired gives us the freedom to teach in the way that makes the most sense for us and our students”, which I completely agree with. This is why it is my believe that no material is better for our students than the one we make ourselves (although time consuming 🙂 ).

    My second language is English. There came a time in my learning acquisition and proficiency in which I felt I needed specific grammar instruction of some specific topics. I find this especially with advanced students as well. Do I explicitly teach grammar? There are times when I do.

    Thanks for this post and all your posts….so much to learn from!

    Gracias,
    Emilia

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      • Hi Martina! I wouldn’t make grammar the focus on the lesson; however, if a one minute explanation of a grammar point would clear the way so that a teacher could continue with a lesson–be it story, narration, partner activity, etc.–I say go for it! Anything that takes the stress OFF the teacher and makes the students work harder and have more time on task, in my opinion, is worth it!

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  2. Fellow “Four-percenter” here. I loved loved loved grammar. English, Spanish, French. Comparing and contrasting grammar rules and the exceptions to the rules. Reading books about the grammar of OTHER languages and how it shows underlying relationships. (An aside: Have you read “The Power of Babel” by James McWhorter? It is the book I find myself recommending the most often to other grammar geeks.)

    In my CI-classroom, though, I try to restrain myself. It still comes out, when I design a whole unit around reflexive verbs, for example. Or when I make sure to give both the ‘correct’ and ‘literal’ translations of a target phrase to emphasize a grammar point. For most students, it’s enough to make that connection, but for some who are like me, it sparks questions about Spanish’s underlying grammar rules. And when they want to know more, I tell them. But overall, I think it is far more effective to make grammar explanations short, sweet, and targeted for meaning than to do whole lessons on direct vs. indirect object pronouns.

    One grammar activity I’ve done that is more CI-friendly is to write out a story in another perspective, have students underline the new verb forms, and then have THEM construct the grammar rules. I also really like to have blocks of stories about similar themes, such as the afore-mentioned reflexive verbs (all centered around personal hygiene) because you get more opportunities to recycle structures into new stories.

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  3. Martina – this post is much needed for me! I’ve struggled with what to do with grammar since I moved to the CI method and ditched the textbook years ago. I do some pop up grammar when needed/asked, and occasional “grammar studies” in which students (after having practiced a structure for a time), analyze examples and find the ‘rule’. I think this has been working wonders for the majority of my students. Sometimes, I feel like those ‘grammar kids’ are crying out for more direct grammar but haven’t found a way to differentiate it for them yet – but your post gave me inspiration!!

    My biggest struggle comes in that the teacher in the levels above me is a strict traditionalist/grammarian. She is EXTREMELY frustrated with the fact that my kids don’t adjust well to her fill in the blank, answer in ____ tense, method. It has made for a nightmare situation for all of us. It’s very hard to keep going, even when you know all the research backs you up, when dealing with brick walls.

    Anyway, thanks so much for this post. It has helped me feel better about the balance I’m (trying) to strike despite the opposition. Love your site!!!

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  4. Hello Martina!

    I’m a second year teacher at an early college in Texas. Our curriculum has been going through a transition year as our assessments are starting to reflect the 3 modes of communication as well as the tasks we are asking students to perform. However, I noticed that as I try to introduce grammar in context in the form of TPRS, my non-native speakers in Spanish 1 have a very hard time trying to acquire the message in the story. I’ll get a lot of “What did he say?” or “I don’t get it.” Then when I have them write in class about how many family members they have, some of my students have trouble with the conjugating “tener” even though I would say “yo tengo” in TPRS many times. Maybe the amount of CI in my class is not enough? Maybe I just suck as a teacher? I really don’t know. However, I find that my students like learning about grammar because it’s taught in a way like their other classes are taught. Direct instruction from teacher, notes they need to write, and practice. (Students must use the Cornell Style of notetaking at our school).

    I don’t know what to believe in. I understand that explicit grammar instruction all the time is not the best practice. However, based on the expectations for our students to have notes for their classes, I find that my kids learn best when there’s both direct grammar instruction and CI AFTER I introduce the vocabulary and any grammar rule for the unit. Are they going to speak it outside of class? Unfortunately, I really don’t think so. I find that if they don’t write it down or if I don’t test them on it (direct grammar tests), my students won’t study for my assessments or will forget what we talked about the next time I see them. My kids seem to prioritize their core subjects first. (We have 85 minute block schedule M/W or T/TR). In a school like mine that stresses creating a college going culture, I feel both grammar and comprehensible input are needed to make better writers AND speakers. It just seems like what the district is pushing (proficiency) contradicts what our school culture is like where more traditional strategies (grammar instruction) are encouraged. Again, maybe I’m just a POS second year teacher who isn’t scaffolding i+1 good enough. In that case, how do we get more materials for teaching using comprehensible input? It takes an ENORMOUS amount of time for me to plan, grade, and prep materials for TWO sections (Spanish 1 and 2) from scratch and unfortunately, there are no subject level teams so I’m the only Spanish 1 and 2 teacher on campus so dividing the workload is not an option. If you were starting out as a teacher, what would you do?

    I’m very sorry if this seems like a rant but it’s 3:07am and this has been frustrating me all semester.

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    • Rant away! Here is what I know: explicit instruction CANNOT supersede the order of acquisition. So no matter how hard, how often, in what ways you try to get your students to acquire a grammatical construction, you will fail. No matter how fiercely you target it through CI, students cannot acquire it until its moment arrives on the order of acquisition. You might think, “No way, when I teach my students how to conjugate verbs, they can do it!” We can LEARN things out of order; we cannot acquire them. So what I always saw while still in the classroom was that my (high aptitude, anyway) students would be able to correctly apply X grammar rule in the short-term, but long-term (over months, marking periods, years), they could not unless they were given lots of time to review their writing and cues from me (check verb endings! Make sure your nouns and adjectives agree!). We cannot make specific, correct language become second nature to our students. What we CAN do is flood them with correct, continuous, compelling, comprehensible input that contains all kinds of grammar constructions and let their brains do the work. If you have to assess students on specific grammar points using district-wide exams, sometimes you have to do a small amount of explicit grammar instruction because students won’t have received enough input to even be able to draw on their intuition, the ‘this one just sounds right’ factor. But this is rarely the case. You’re not a POS teacher, you don’t just suck as a teacher. The fact that this is keeping you awake at 3:00am shows that you care, that you are working hard, and that you need to show yourself some grace! You are right that changing everything you’re doing and doing it differently than everyone else around you is exhausting, time consuming, and draining at times! Do what you need to do to be healthy and happy. If that means some explicit grammar instruction while you get your feet under you with CI instruction, don’t beat yourself up over it! If you aren’t in a good mental place, this is not going to work for you. You need to be able to be present and content when you are with your students so that you can connect with them and meet them with comprehensible input that is meaningful to them. You can’t do this if you are stressed out. You’ve got this!!! You can do it!!!

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  5. One of my issues with CI is this:
    Eeither CI or traditional instruction, most kids are not going to become fluent or near fluent in a foreign language, and I would say none will do so on the basis of (only) a foreign language class. Those who do become fluent, it will be because they became interested and pursued outside opportunities such as living abroad. The point of foreign language class for these few students is to build their interest and develop a base in the language which allows them to pursue it further. Either CI or traditional instruction can accomplish this goal.

    For the vast majority of students, they will not remember much from the class in 10 years. However, in my opinion, grammar instruction helps with many things outside of pure foreign language class. It helps students reflect on the nature of language as a code. it helps them immensely with their own language (from easy stuff like thinking about when adverbs are used, to more difficult things like tense/mood that are not immediately apparent in English language). Students who want to be writers or journalists or even lawyers therefore benefit from grammar instruction in foreign language. If done correctly, grammar instruction can also contribute to math and computer science type ability (since, after all, you are simply teaching language as a ‘code’, with algorithmic elements).

    In ten years, when most have forgotten their Spanish, students will still have benefited from this analytic view that exposed language in a way they probably hadnt thought of before. In CI, maybe they will remember the story about the cat?

    With CI, I dont see these auxiliary effects. Even assuming CI is a better way to acquire a language, It may be great for something like an ESL class, where the purpose is to build ability as fast as possible to a level that allows students to interact and live their daily lives in the USA, knowing that grammar can be fixed later. But a foreign language class is not an ESL class.

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    • I completely agree with the first part of this comment, James! Our goal as language teachers REALISTICALLY is to get students interested in becoming lifelong language learners. It is simply not possible for students to become fluent in four years of 50 minute periods. From there, I would disagree. I can appreciate that grammar instruction has auxiliary benefits (as you listed), and I think that CI has many, many more. First of all, all students can be successful–and FEEL successful–when the focus of instruction is comprehensible input. I am guessing from your cat story comment that you were thinking specifically of TPRS as you wrote your comment, and I think it is important to consider all forms of CI. In my classes, each unit has a cultural focus. Instruction through CI has equipped my students with the vocabulary necessary to discuss real, important, meaningful issues, and eliminating grammar drills and vocabulary memorization activities has freed up time to spend working through them. Check out the slideshow from my keynote at COFLT/WAFLT this past weekend: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0B_SGIahFBCj8d3hQSEJQSFVsaGs I firmly believe that CI is the most equitable approach to language instruction. Traditionally, only high aptitude students continue into upper levels of language instruction. Low aptitude students and/or students with little interest in language do not continue beyond the required courses. Grant Boulanger has explored the idea of equity in language education and its potential, global impact quite thoroughly on his blog, http://www.grantboulanger.com. I appreciate your comments very much and I enjoyed reflecting on them; at this time I still disagree that grammar instruction has more auxiliary benefits but I would love to continue the conversation!

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  6. Fantastic post, Martina. Given the continued habit of explicit grammar teaching, this will continue to be relevant for some time to come.

    I think that we have reached a juncture, however, in which it is time to redefine candidacy for future teachers. The current definition for a future second language teacher is having a predilection for grammar rules and forms. This is what I hear in your parenthetic statement, “even though they were effective for me, the future Spanish teacher.”

    If the teacher of the past could be predicted by a predilection for grammar, how could we predict the secong language teacher of the future? It is certainly worth more thought and discussion than my brief comments offered here: The ideal second language teacher candidate would certainly have a knack for engaging people of all levels in compelling messages in the target language.
    Does this sum up the essence of the future SL teacher? Is it a bit askew? Does all other description flow out from this? These questions to consider as we try to define, as you say in another post, the One Thing necessary for the future SL teacher.

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