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Vocabulary Activities
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Vocabulary Activities

There are as many interesting and fun ways to work with vocabulary as you have the time and imagination to prepare them. My mantra for vocabulary is: "Recognition, Repetition, Reproduction." Always keep in mind that the end goal of learning vocabulary is to be able to use it comfortably in context.

Maintain a picture box. Magazine advertisements provide wonderful pictures for all kinds of vocabulary because they are bright and attention grabbing, and generally do not have a lot of extraneous things going on in them. Mount them on colored paper so they are all the same size. To introduce a new set of vocabulary, create a story and show the picture as you use the word. The story should repeat the words several times. Use the pictures as visual clues for vocabulary repetition or multiple choice recognition. Distribute several pictures to a group of students and have them create a story of their own to share with the class.

Prepare 3x5 flash cards. I find that visual cues work best on one side of the card with the TL word on the reverse. These can be used as drill, as cues to form sentences, as part of scrambled sentences, or for a memory game on the front board. I sometimes use the computer for this, finding clip art better than my limited line-drawing skills. Once these are done, you will have them for the duration of your textbook cycle.

Here are some activities that my students have always enjoyed. Starred activities are explained below. This is a chart summary for vocabulary activities at different language levels:

Beginning Intermediate Advanced
  • Memory/Concentration
  • Fly swatter
  • Magnetic scrabble
  • Scrambled sentences
  • Word pictures
  • Grouping & organizing
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Word searches
  • Beginning activities
  • Flyers
  • Posters
  • Radio spots
  • TV news program
  • Role play
  • Typewriter
  • Story telling
  • Children's book
  • Intermediate activities
  • Skits
  • "What's My Line?"
  • Riddles
  • Newspaper kid's page
  • Teach elementary class
  • Acrostics
  • Graffiti

Beginning

Memory/Concentration
Goal: To match every drawing with the appropriate vocabulary word. Winning team is the one that matches the most words and drawings correctly.
Preparation: This requires the use of two sets of note cards, one set numbered from 1 to 30, and the other 30 cards divided in half, 15 with clear, clean line drawings that illustrate the vocabulary and 15 with the vocabulary word in the L2. I use the black board because it is centrally located in my classroom, but a bulletin board or easel board would work just as well. Shuffle the drawing and word cards together to get a random order. Place the drawing cards on the blackboard in a 6 x 5 grid, with space around each card. Cover each drawing or word with a consecutively numbered card that can be lifted to show the drawing/word underneath. (I use scotch tape to attach the cards to the board.)
Procedure: Divide the class in half. The first person says the numbers of two of the cards in the L2. The teacher lifts the card to reveal the drawing/word hidden underneath. If it is a match, the cards are removed from the grid and the next person on the team chooses two more numbers. If it is not a match, the numbers are replaced and play moves to the other team. Play continues until no match is made. Play alternates back and forth between teams until all words are matched with drawings.
Hints: Insist that everybody play, that nobody shares information with anyone else on the team, that everybody listen, and that nobody takes notes. This is an activity that permits the students to remain in their seats while actively engaged in a whole class game. Everybody needs to pay attention and be quiet to hear what numbers are being selected. Allow about 15 minutes to play.

Fly swatter
Place words on board or wall. Divide class into relay teams for a relay race. Give a clue. Student in front of each line goes to the word wall and swats the correct vocabulary item.

Magnetic scrabble
Purchase magnetic letters. Play on the front board. A variation is a relay race, with 2 members from each team working together. A clue to the vocabulary item is given. One student searches for the letters. The other student places them on the board. First team to get the word correctly spelled wins the point.

Scrambled Sentences
This is a good activity for midway through a lesson or for review at the end of a lesson. This is also excellent for reinforcing syntax at any time.
Goal: To form complete, grammatically correct sentences from the randomly organized word cards.
Preparation: Prepare as many sets of cards as will be needed for groups of 3 or 4 students. Create your master list of sentences, usually around 20 is sufficient. Using 1 ½" x 2 ½" note cards, write one word on each note card. Divide the sentences evenly into sets. (If you have a class of 25 students, 3 students per group, you will need 8 sets of cards.) Mix (scramble) the words in each sentence and place them in a paper clip. Place 3 paper clipped sentences on each of 8 desktops spaced around the room. Each desktop will act as a station and students will rotate from station to station at the end of a prescribed amount of time. 5 minutes is a good place to start until you figure out how quickly your students can master this type of activity.
Procedure: Each group of 3 or 4 students is supplied with a piece of paper and a pencil, and is placed at one of the 8 desktops. Working together as a team of 3, the students unscramble the sentences, write them on their paper, and bring them to the teacher for checking. If they are correct nothing more is required at this stage; if they are incorrect, the students are permitted to reorganize the sentence until they get it right, or until time is called. When time is called, each team rotates to the next desktop station and goes through the procedure again with a new set of sentences.
Hints: This is a good activity to place stronger and weaker students together to work out the puzzle. A different student should be designated as the team secretary at each station, allowing all students to write as well as manipulate the sentences. Three stations are about all the students can stay on task with, so allow 20-25 minutes total for this activity.

Word pictures
Given a list of vocabulary, students draw a picture related to the word that incorporates the word in the drawing. Simple line drawings work the best.

Grouping and Organizing
This is a good activity at the beginning of a lesson to acquaint the students with all of the vocabulary and to get them to think about relationships between and among words.

Goal: To organize vocabulary words by category.
Preparation: If you wish, you can pre-determine the categories into which the vocabulary list should be organized. I generally allow the students to determine the categories themselves since this requires them to think more deeply about relationships.
Procedure: Students use the list of vocabulary provided at the end of the lesson in the textbook. These words are generally already divided into various topics (which do not count for purposes of this activity), but there are many more categories that can be created. Each category must contain at least 3 words for it to legitimately be considered a category. Words may be used in more than one category. Each student writes a category heading, underlining it, and lists all words that correspond to the category underneath the heading. Stipulate a time limit for this activity and stick to it, collecting the papers at the end of the time limit. Then, for full class follow-up, ask students what categories they listed and put these on the board. Once several categories are on the board, ask students to suggest words that fit the category.
Hints: This is an activity that can be done individually or in pairs or triplets, depending upon the amount of time you wish to devote to in class follow-up and paper grading. I prefer individually because it forces each student to look at the words and think about their meaning, as well as requiring them to write the words multiple times. Additionally, this is a good activity to assign if you have to be out of the class on one of the first days of a new lesson. This can also be used as a homework assignment. This is probably a 30-minute activity and can be spread out over two days, with the follow-up on the second day.

Crossword Puzzles
This is a good activity to do any time, once the students are familiar with the vocabulary of the lesson.

Goal: To create a crossword puzzle that uses about 50% of the listed vocabulary. Depending upon the level of student, the clues are to be in the L2 if at all possible.
Preparation: I usually prepare the grid for the students, so there is some uniformity in size; this makes it easier for me to read. Instead of asking the students to number each word individually as in a real crossword puzzle, I put numbers across the columns and letters down the rows. This way as a student finds a spot to place a word, he designates it, for example, as H12 (the word starts on row H, column 12) and places it either in the horizontal or vertical list of clues. I often place one of the longer words or phrases in the grid with a definition or clue to help them get started.
Procedure: If this is a homework assignment, I usually give the students 2 or 3 days to work on it. If it is an in-class project, I usually spread it out over 2 to 3 days. The clues may be definitions in the L2, synonyms or antonyms in the L2. Very rarely will I permit a direct translation between L1 and L2 for the clues. All words must be interconnected and no floaters are permitted. If students wish, they may use a highlighter to block out the unused squares on the grid. A variation is for the teacher to prepare the clues and have the students fill in the grid.
Hints: I prefer crosswords to word searches because a crossword requires that the words be inter-laced. This requires a bit more attention to the spelling of the word. If I give this as a homework assignment, I know that some students will put the words into a crossword making computer program. They must come up with their own clues, so it is still an effective method for them to have contact with the words. If I prepare the clues and simply ask the students to fill in the grid, I find that one student does the work and others borrow the answers. So, often it becomes an assignment to work on in pairs in class on a day when I am attending a meeting and not in class.

Word Searches
This is a good activity for early in a lesson to help students recognize and become familiar with their new vocabulary.

Goal: To locate all of the words listed in the clues.
Preparation: Most students really do not care for word searches that include backwards and upside down words, so I generally stay away from them. Place the desired words in a grid. Fill in the remaining squares of the grid with random letters. Provide a list of words or clues. I tend to create clues based on definitions, synonyms, or antonyms in the L2, rather than direct translations from L1 to L2.
Procedure: There are two ways to approach this activity. One is to prepare the grid with the words and clues and just have the students highlight the hidden words. The other requires a bit more work on the part of the student, wherein the student prepares the grid and the clues himself before highlighting the hidden words. I prefer the later because it requires more attention on the part of the student.
Hints: Some learning disabilities make word searches an almost impossible task.

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Intermediate

Typewriter
Prepare two sets of alphabet cards. Distribute randomly to each team. Students will probably have 2 or 3 letters each, depending on the size of the class. Alternating teams, give a clue. The team must spell out the word by standing up letter by letter, saying the word, and spelling the word. The idea is to simulate an old-fashioned keystroke typewriter.

Flyers
This is a good culminating activity, before a test, to bring together all the grammar, vocabulary, and cultural concepts in a lesson.

Goal: To prepare an 81/2" x 11" flyer that announces something, using correct grammar, vocabulary, and cultural content from the lesson.
Preparation: Have in mind what you want the end product to look like before you start writing directions and a rubric for this. Decide if the flyer will have hand drawn art, or computer generated graphics. Determine the specifics for the assignment: 1) What is the minimum number of vocabulary words you wish them to use? 2) How many examples of the grammar points need to be incorporated into the flyer? 3) What is/are the topic/s, or will you let the students invent their own topics as long as they use the required elements? 4) Will you evaluate the appearance? This can be done either as an out-of-class assignment, or in-class. Be sure to reserve the computer lab if you need it. For hand drawn art, have a supply of colored pencils, markers, scissors, and glue on hand. Have wall space available for posting the flyers.
Procedure: Each student will work alone on this activity, producing a flyer that addresses the topic and uses the elements of the lesson. If this is an in-class assignment, be sure to provide the tools necessary for completing the assignment.
Hints: This type of activity is a good one to finish out a class period with, asking the students to complete the work at home and turn it in the next day at the start of class. Or, this is something that can be left for a day when a substitute is in the classroom.

Posters
This is a good culminating activity, before a test, to bring together all the grammar, vocabulary, and cultural concepts in a lesson.

Goal: To prepare a large poster that explains something, using correct grammar, vocabulary, and cultural content from the lesson.
Preparation: Have in mind what you want the end product to look like before you start writing directions and a rubric for this. Decide if the poster will have hand drawn art, or computer generated graphics. Determine the specifics for the assignment:

  1. What is the minimum number of vocabulary words you wish them to use?
  2. How many examples of the grammar points need to be incorporated into the flyer?
  3. What is/are the topic/s, or will you let the students invent their own topics as long as they use the required elements?
  4. Will you evaluate the appearance? This can be done either as an out-of-class assignment, or in-class. Be sure to reserve the computer lab if you need it. For hand drawn art, have a supply of colored pencils, markers, scissors, and glue on hand. Have wall space available for posting the flyers.
Procedure: Each student will work alone, or in pairs, on this activity, producing a poster that addresses the topic and uses the elements of the lesson. If this is an in-class assignment, be sure to provide the tools necessary for completing the assignment. An example of a poster project: the topic is basic health and exercise, the grammar is present subjunctive, the setting is someplace in France. The poster would have phrases exhorting people to eat well or exercise every day. There might be examples of a balanced diet or types of exercise. Foods would be those easily available in France and places to exercise would be in France as well.
Hints: When students work together on a project of this nature, they tend to waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to attack the assignment. Brainstorming with the entire class may reduce this problem. This is a good activity to spread out over two days so you have time for other types of instructional activities during the class period.

Radio Spots
This is another good culminating activity before a test, to bring together all of the grammar, vocabulary, and cultural concepts in a lesson.

Goal: To present orally, either in front on the class or onto a tape recorder, a 15-second segment for a radio broadcast that uses the vocabulary, grammar, and cultural concepts of the lesson.
Preparation: Write a good set of directions and a clear rubric for the activity, including pronunciation and inflection. If this will be recorded, gather together several tape recorders and cassette tapes. Place them around the room so several students can be recording at the same time. Check out all of the equipment to be certain everything works correctly. Set the volume. Write a specific set of directions for operating the tape recorder that is to be placed on the desk next to the recorder. Demonstrate the use of the tape recorder to the class, even if this is something they are accustomed to doing; it will reduce the poorly recorded messages.
Procedure: Provide students with a clear set of directions and rubric for this assignment. Give them time to write the script, practice it, and then to record or present it. The assignment may spread over a week to provide for sufficient practice time. If this is the first or second time they have done an activity of this nature, you may want to listen and critique prior to the final presentation. These messages may be public service announcements or advertisements.
Hints: I have found that students like to record their spots and then listen to them as a whole class. They think they're wasting time; they are actually getting additional contact and more much-needed listening practice.

Children's Book
This is a good culminating activity, before a test, to bring together all the grammar, vocabulary, and cultural concepts in a lesson.

Goal: To write an illustrated children's story in a specific time frame, using specified categories of vocabulary.
Preparation: Prepare a clear set of directions and rubrics for the students to follow. Provide examples of the end product so students understand what they are expected to do. Determine the time frame, probably either present or past, and the vocabulary content. For purposes of example, this explanation will deal with childhood activities in the past. Not only do students need to be able to conjugate correctly, but they also must understand the differences among the various past tenses. Familiarity with vocabulary is essential. Determine how much time will be devoted to the activity in class and how much will the student be expected to do on his own time. Break down the process into easy-to-manage segments.
Procedure: Before doing any actual work on the student's stories, read some "real" stories in Spanish to your students. Talk about how the "plot" and "characters" are developed, about how the words and illustrations are arranged on the pages, about what the illustrations accomplish in terms of the story message. You may also want to talk about how the past tenses chosen by the author play into the over-all understanding of what is happening in the story.

First, brainstorm about the kinds of things the students used to do when they were 10 years old. What things happened only once or twice? Describe the people and places involved with the activities.How did they feel? Make a list of these ideas on the board, demonstrate how to select a few topics that work well together, follow a theme, and provide enough information to meet your length requirements.

Second, have each student do their own brainstorming, developing ideas that are of interest to them, grouping and organizing them into a sensible progression. At this point, nothing should be in sentences yet, and all written work should be in the target language. The teacher might want to collect this for review and comment.

Third, create a detailed outline from which to write the content of the story. Remind students to pay attention to good organization and sufficient details. Again, this might be collected for review and comment.

Fourth, begin writing a rough draft, writing on every 3rd or 4th line to allow for convenient editing. This draft should have several versions, each time tightening the language and sharpening the visual images the words create. Continue this process until the student (and his teacher) is satisfied with the work.

Fifth, determine the layout of the story on the pages of the book. Where will the words be placed? Where will illustrations be? Do a mock-up.

Sixth, design the illustrations with attention to how they illuminate and add to the story.

Seventh, combine the words with the illustrations and bind the book together.

And there you have it! An original children's book that can be shared with young children in the elementary school or during the public library's story time.

Hints: This is a long and involved process that spreads out over several weeks. The use of graphic organizers, idea mapping, or a computer based program such as Inspiration � may be helpful. The danger is that the students will lose interest, so choose a series of lessons that have related and relevant vocabulary.

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Advanced

Skits
This is a good culminating activity, before a test, to bring together all the grammar, vocabulary, and cultural concepts in a lesson.

Goal: To create and present a cohesive skit on a particular topic.
Preparation: Create a rubric and a clear set of directions for the students. Include such items as content (vocabulary and topic), structure (grammar and syntax), sound of speech (pronunciation, flow, inflection), and presentation (props, action, delivery of lines, length).
Procedure: Since this is an activity that you have been using since early in level one, students should know what to expect. By this level, writing of lines should be very minimal. Planning should be done in the target language. On the day the skit is assigned, allow time in class for the groups to get together and decide on an approach, assign roles, and do some basic blocking of action. The day before the skit is to be performed in front of the class, provide some time for practice. On the day of the skit presentation, allow only enough time to ready the props. When presentations are over, have students write summaries of at least two of the skits, including a "plot line" and using the language elements you required for the presentation.
Hints: Three to four students per group provides for enough characters to lend variety and depth to the presentation without overwhelming the students. It is a good idea to emphasize that each student will receive an individual grade based on his verbal contribution to the performance of the skit on the day it is presented. If you have stipulated a number of vocabulary words, each individual must use that number of words.
Variation: impromptu skits. Somewhere between a prepared skit and something from "Whose Line Is It?" impromptu skits require students to think and plan quickly. Provide a group of students with a topic, give them a specified amount of time to prepare (5 minutes), and then have them present. Do one a day until everybody has had an opportunity to present. While the group of the day is preparing, remaining students can be reading, writing, or playing vocabulary games.

What's My Line?
This is a good activity to encourage quick, global thinking. Requiring a broad vocabulary base and creative interpretation, students are always challenged in this fun activity. Based on the Drew Carey TV show.

Goal: To react appropriately and creatively to unexpected statements and behaviors of a partner.
Preparation: Choose the particular type of activity (questions only, newscast, on the spot reporting, etc.) the students will be asked to perform. Be sure you have a vision of what you want the students to do, and that they have the basic vocabulary necessary to do it, before asking them to do it. The following is an example for questions only.
Procedure: Divide class into opposing teams. One member of each team steps to the center of the room and a conversation ensues between them in which only questions may be used. When one student cannot respond with a question, he sits down and the next person on his team takes his place. Play continues until the topic is used up or until all students have had an opportunity to participate.
Hints: Students must have a good command of interrogatives and must be paying attention in order to successfully participate in this activity. On the day before the game, it is a good idea to shoot rapid fire questions at students on random topics in no particular order.

Riddles
This is a good activity to extend a reading assignment, to review vocabulary, or to practice a particular style of writing.

Goal: To write a riddle in a particular writing style, using a specified set of vocabulary.
Preparation: Find riddles in the target language and use them as a reading assignment. Doing an Internet search will result is several resources. Prepare a rubric and clear directions for the students. Determine if they will have a topic around which to write the riddles, or if they will be given free rein. Define the form of the riddle: poem, number of lines, use of simile and/or metaphor, title. Clear wall space for posting the riddles so other students may read and enjoy them.
Procedure: Explain the assignment and when it is due. Read several riddles so students can get a feeling for the style of writing and how circumspect to be with the clues. Where are the answers? Collect and assess the riddle before posting.
Hints: A simple and fun assignment, this is easily adaptable to all levels.

Newspaper Kid's Page
A long term project that explores a variety of topics.

Goal: To create a children's newspaper page, published on a regular basis, each edition about a particular topic with a variety of activities to explain the topic.
Preparation: Good scheduling and advanced planning is essential to the success of this project. Although this is not strictly a vocabulary activity, it employs learned vocabulary in a new context and in a unique way. Determine the audience, the method of production and distribution, the newsroom roles, and some possible topics. How will the student be assessed? How much time in class will be spent on this activity? If it is a language club activity, how frequently with the editorial staff need to meet? The size of the page is important; 11in x 17in is recommended. The teacher must have a clear vision of the end product, the purpose, and the follow-up before embarking on the project.
Procedure: Provide students with a clear vision of the purpose and end product. Give students the lead in decisions about topics, layout, graphics, and all other elements of publication. If there are only a few students involved, assign each individual multiple tasks. If there are a lot of students, it might be possible to work on multiple editions simultaneously. All information must be thoroughly researched and free of copyright. It is recommended that all graphics be original work by the students. Address the topic in a variety of ways, using different illustrations and contexts to cover the core concepts of the age and grade level of the audience. If the topic is snow, possible items for the page might be: the structure of a snowflake, a table illustrating snowfall over the last 5 years in the locality, things to make with snow (snow man, snow angels, maple candy), sports that involve snow (skiing, sledding), how to make paper snowflakes, word searches or crossword puzzles, Did you know that� questions, how to dress for the snow, snow tools, etc. Once everything is ready, then the layout process begins. White space is important, as is size of lettering; keep in mind the age of the audience. Print and distribute. Follow-up might include a survey, a conversation with a group of young readers, an evaluation on the part of the editorial staff.
Hints: This is a long-term project that requires iron-fisted control. Deadlines are important. Set intermediate as well as final ones. There will be technical glitches that the teacher will need to solve along the way; be prepared. Have alternatives. In subsequent issues, assign new roles to students until each finds his niche.

Graffiti
This is a good activity for self-expression.

Goal: To creatively express oneself verbally in a public forum.
Preparation: Designate a portion of the wall, board, or bulletin board as the graffiti place. Provide appropriate writing instruments. The teacher must determine if this is an open forum, for a specific class, or about a specific topic.
Procedure: Explain the purpose of the graffiti wall to the students, emphasizing the appropriateness of the content. Students are permitted to write graffiti before or after class, or when they have completed a class activity and are waiting for others to do so. Reading also falls into these time frames.
Hints: This is not intended to be a graded assignment. The teacher may decide if each entry is to be signed, or if anonymous entries will be permitted. On occasion, there may be an especially provocative statement that will spark interesting class discussions in the target language. Listen to the students as they read the graffiti and occasionally allow time in class to talk what is on the wall.

Teach a class at an elementary school
A long term project, this provides upper level students with the opportunity to review basic vocabulary, to create real-life situations in which the vocabulary is used, and to create some potential students.

Goal: To prepare and present short lessons to elementary school class over a period of weeks.
Preparation: Good scheduling and advanced planning is essential to the success of this project. Schedule the teaching times with the elementary school teacher. Find out what the students will be studying so parallel lessons can be planned. Work out transportation and parent permissions for the advanced students. Discuss with the elementary teacher what will be done in the eventuality of a teacher’s absence, an unexpected testing, assembly, or other schedule change. Inform the principals of the project and maybe bring in the local media. Prepare a mini-methods course for the advanced students. Arrange to go with the students on the first day to introduce them and set a tone.
Procedure: Start with the mini-methods course, focusing on good lesson planning and preparation. Continue the mini-methods sessions throughout the course of the project, addressing specific instances that crop up, and adding information about presentation techniques and other methodology that is appropriate. Each lesson should visibly and logically tie in with something the students are already learning in class.

Work closely with students to prepare the first lesson. There should be a variety of approaches, a lot of active participation, some quiet reflection time, and lots of visuals that can be left behind for review by the classroom teacher. Be certain that students have good pronunciation and basic knowledge of the subject matter. Schedule a practice session and critique, followed by a dress rehearsal. Once the first lesson is complete, this same preparation procedure is followed for each lesson, with less direct supervision from the teacher.

Before presentation day, double check the transportation arrangements and parent permission for students to leave school during the day. All materials should be organized, packed, and ready for transport.

On the day of presentation, once the introductions are over, the teacher turns the class over to the advanced and either leaves or sits in the back of the classroom. When the presentation is over, the “teachers” gather up what needs to be taken back to their school and leave the visuals for review with the elementary teacher.

Follow-up immediately after the presentation to discuss what went well, what worked and what didn’t. Use this information to design a better lesson for the next time.
Hints: Do not attempt this project unless the advanced students are creative and comfortable with children. They need good language skills and must be willing to enthusiastically participate throughout the entire project. Also, it is imperative that the elementary teacher be enthusiastic and can be depended upon to reinforce what the students have learned. Principals need to be strong backers of the project as well.

Acrostics
This is a good culminating activity, before a test, to bring together all the grammar, vocabulary, and cultural concepts in a lesson.

Goal: To write acrostic in the target language.
Preparation: Prepare a clear set of directions and rubrics for the students to follow. In an acrostic, each line is related to the word. Provide some examples so the students understand the assignment. Provide the students with a range for the number of letters in the topic word; 8-12 is a good range to start. Later assignments might ask for longer acrostics, once the students become familiar with the technique. A variation might be to make the acrostic also a poem.
Procedure: Distribute the assignment to the students. Provide illustrations done by students in previous years, teacher prepared examples, or acrostics written by famous writers. Be certain students understand that each line starts with a letter of the topic word and is directly related to the topic. The pool of words might come from a vocabulary list, from a short story, or any number of other sources. Students may want to embellish their acrostic with artwork. Prepare a wall space to display the acrostics and provide time for students to read the work of their classmates.
Hints: Easily adaptable to any level.

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