Reading and Writing during Early Childhood

Literacy is held in high esteem in all cultures, and that it is the symbol of prestige and power is proved by many a rhymes, popular sayings and folk tales. Let’s take the examples of two popular rhymes, one from Bengali and another from Hindi.
‘likha poda kore jei
Gadi ghoda chode sei’
(He who reads and writes, travels by cars or on horseback)

‘likhai, padayi nehi shikhogi,
Tow gadhey ki tarhei rahogi’
( If you do not learn reading and writing, you will live the life of a donkey

The Bengali nursery rhyme equates reading and writing with the ability to travel by cars or on horse back while the Hindi saying implies that reading and writing differentiate a man from an animal.
How do children start reading and and writing? During my childhood, I was often intrigued by the story of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, a great educator and social reformer, who reportedly learnt English numerals even before going to school. According to legend, Iswar Chandra, accompanied by his father, was walking to Calcutta from his native village in November 1828 to be enrolled in a school and as he passed each milestone, he looked closely at the numerals, made mental pictures of those numerals, so that by the time he reached Calcutta he had learned them. Later as an adult, I observed how my kids were drawn to various symbols painted on toys, household goods and how they tried to grasp the printed messages conveyed by written words on signboards, hoardings, wrappers and the boxes of sweets and the bottles of medicines. I was amazed to notice the slow and unobtrusive ways in which literacy dawned on them even before they were initiated to formal reading and writing on the day of Vidyarambham.
Vidyarambham which marks an auspicious beginning of a child’s journey to literacy is generally performed in literate Hindu families. During this ceremony, children are made to sit on the lap of an elderly person, who writes the invocation to Lord Ganapati on the child’s tongue with a golden ring and make her write the same with the right index finger on a bed of sand or rice. Many people believe that children should not start reading and writing until and unless this Vidyrambham ceremony is performed! This highly elitist practice ignores the inherent capability of a child who is endowed with an inborn ability to decipher the meaning of symbols and acquires visual literacy right from her birth. The ability to interpret and making meaning from information presented in the form of an image is acquired by a child from her immediate environment. When children look at printed symbols and are drawn by their shapes and colours, they begin to see patterns, they notice when a word belongs to a picture and they can also find out when two words are identical. They ‘construct ideas about reading, and writing that are not taught to them, are not modelled for them, and are not yet conventional’ (Teale and Sulzby, 1992:52).
If enriching the child’s experience is the ultimate goal of early childhood education, parents should not hesitate to introduce reading and writing to their inquisitive children even at a very tender age. If parents can ignite the curiosity and interest of their children in words and in print, they should respond to that interest (Clay,1991:29). In literate societies, children’s urge for reading or the desire to make sense of the printed words comes from children’s listening to stories read to them by their parents. Listening promotes reading, it prepares the ground for the development of the children’s visual perception when they are immersed in the print environment.
That there is an intimate relationship between the linguistic development and the cognitive development of the children is an established fact and children have a natural tendency to make numerous language discoveries in consonance with their cognitive development. While playing with other children or interacting with adults, they make numerous experiments with their linguistic skills to socialize themselves appropriately by using socially appropriate norms of the language. They learn how to use words to describe concepts such as present, past and future, up and down or near and far. If they can catch hold of a pen or a pencil they tend to make innumerable dots or small lines on the walls, floors or on the surface of any object available in their immediate vicinity. Making marks with a pen or pencil on any surface presupposes their exposure to similar marks on some objects. ‘They make marks which are founded on a motivated relation between meaning and form, signified and signifier’ ( Kress,1997:73).
How does a child react when she gets a book? She grabs it, opens it, catches hold of a page and often tries to tear the page. Sometimes, looking at the book all by herself, the child would look at the pictures, would talk to them and would pretend reading them. The child who has no idea of the alphabet till now makes no distinction between the picture and the letter of the alphabet. Both are images in print which speak. Pointing at a picture, a child often asks her parents, “What does it say?” The day the child realises that pictures or the printed pages say something interesting, she starts her journey to literacy. Basic literacy concepts like print is spoken words that are written down in a particular way, printed words carry meaning, reading is done from left to right or from the front to the back of the book start dawning on the child only when she is given a chance to handle books, to play with books and to speak to books without the mediation of the parents or the care givers. Goodman (1992:6) has rightly observed, “The beginning of reading and writing occurs in individuals when they develop the awareness that written language makes sense.” Input rich environment can only develop this awareness which is a precondition for emergent literacy. The Early Childhood Education Curriculum Framework (2012), prepared by the Ministry of Women and Child development, Government of India has also emphasized the importance of developing emergent literacy during the early childhood.
Any discourse on literacy is often conditioned by our preconceived notion of a literate society and a literate environment. A child in a literate society breathes literacy, she is immersed in literacy and grows up with literacy as an integral part of her all round development. But what about a child of a non-literate society? Is there a scope for literacy development among children of parents who are illiterate. In many Indian families, parents cannot dream of the luxury of providing a print rich literacy environment to their children. The report of the Consultancy on Early Literacy held in Delhi from 25-28 April 2011 observes that for “many children their first active engagement with the written forms of language occurs only when they step into school. Such children need to be gradually initiated into the world of reading and writing, in informal, meaningful and non threatening ways. As these new school goers observe, interact informally and participate freely and purposefully in drawing, scribbling, reading and writing activities in their classrooms, they begin to sort out and acquire knowledge and concepts about the written forms of language.”
In order to familiarize the children of non-literate families with the print and to prompt them to read and write on their own, the Anganwadi centres which cater to children in the age group of 0-6 can play a pivotal role in the Indian context. Unfortunately, the Anganwadi workers are not properly trained in the theory and practice of emergent literacy and consequently, they cannot scaffold the literacy experience of the children. The pre-school activities done in the Anganwadi centres are often the simplified versions of the formal reading writing activities done in a formal school setting. While educating parents about child growth and development, the Anganwadi workers can motivate them to provide their children with a print rich environment with the locally available resources. It is not uncommon to see tribal children playing with beads in the courtyard trying to form shapes of different letters which they have noticed in the Anganwadi centres. Children coming to Anganwadi centres should be encouraged to draw and scribble and the Anganwadi workers should read story books to the children. It has been observed that Anganwadi workers are so overburdened with survey work and nutrition related activities that they find little time to read story books to the children. Irrespective of the socio-cultural background, all children have a natural tendency of responding to different shapes and paintings in their own ways depending on their previous knowledge and experience. The reason why the children of the disadvantaged section of our society do not learn how to read and write is the threatening manner in which the reading writing activities are introduced by their care givers. If we can introduce reading or writing as a performing art expressing the creative urge of the little children, there a no reason why these children should not be motivated to read and write as a joyful activity.
Clay, Marie M. (1991). Becoming Literate. Portsmouth,NK:Heinemann.
Goodman, Yetta M.,1986. “Children Coming to Know Literacy” in Teale, W.H. and Sulzbt, E. (ed). Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, New Jersey,Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Kress,G. (1997). Before Writing: Rethinking the Pathway to Literacy. London: Routledge.
Report of the Consultation on Early Literacy with some partners of Sir Ratan Tata Trust and Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust, retrieved from…;
Teale, William H and Sulzby, Elizabeth. (1986). Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, New Jersey,Ablex Publishing Corporation.
The Early Childhood Education Curriculum Framework(Draft) 2012, The Ministry of Women and Child Developme, retrived from

PS. I am posting it in my blog for the comments of the visitors of my blog. It has been published in Learning Curve, Issue no. XXII, June 2014, Azim Premji University.Bangalore, India

Why do we need Writing Centers in our Universities?

Unlike the Writing Centers of the US universities, ‘Writing Center’ is an unknown entity in the Indian Universities. All postgraduate students can write academic papers, can’t they? Go to a library, read the books and journals recommended by your professor and prepare your term papers or your assignments . There’s no body to guide you, no body to tell you how to avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism, how to write critically and independently. What is MLA style sheet? Nothing to do with the MLA ( Member of the Legislative Assembly!
Are writing Centers writing labs? How does the University community view the functioning of the writing centes in the USA? Referring to the status of the writing centers in American colleges, Lisa Ede makes a significant observation, “our second class status is symbolized by our basement offices and inadequate staffs and budgets.” (Ref: “writing as a Social Process: A theoretical foundation for Writing Cente, retrieved from
I am glad that I was associated with the writing Center of our University. Unlike the writing centres of the American universities, this Writing Centre was planned not so much in the space of building English language skills but as a more specific intervention that supported the “academic writing and critical thinking” of the students irrespective of the medium in which they had studied earlier during their school or college days. It was designed as a one to one consultation space for the postgraduate students of Education and Development to refine their thought on the formats of their assignments and to provide them timely help on specific assignments. The primary objective of the Writing Center was to help the students to write better and to construct arguments more logically, precisely and convincingly.
The most challenging task faced by the students coming to the Writing Center was the challenge of cohesion and coherence, thematic as well as linguistic. Often, there was a mismatch between the coherence of thought and the coherence of expression. Again, even when some students were competent enough to develop an argument orally, they were confused do so in writing. “ You speak so nicely and you articulate your ideas so brilliantly. Why do you feel so uneasy in expressing them in writing?” I used to ask some of them who were afraid of writing an assignment as per the norms of a particular discipline. I realized that what these students needed was scaffolding. They had the ideas, they had listened to their professors with a critical bent of mind and had read a number of scholarly books, but were unable to present their point of view in a cohesive manner due to their insufficient exposure to the domain specific writing style. It was not a question of their lack of proficiency in English, it was a question of the lack of exposure to the domain specific conventions and the rhetorical practice.
The Writing Center also helped me in gaining a new insight into ‘process writing’. With many students, structuring their ideas in writing was more problematic than structuring their paragraphs and it was often noticed that the lack of linearity in processing the thought content affected the processing of the writing output.
On the basis of my interaction with a highly motivated group of students coming from English as well as other Indian language backgrounds and hailing from the various parts of the country, I do believe that all the Indian colleges and universities should make provisions for ‘writing centers’. The fact that you are a native speaker of a particular language does not guarantee that you can write academic papers in that language. We learn writing as a developmental process, through mentoring, experimenting and exploring. We don’t learn it just by listening to the academic discourses of our professors. Don’t lull them with your rhetoric, give them a hands-on experience.

Elementary Teacher Education in India: An Exercise in Futility?

While I was going through the course material prepared for the Diploma in Elementary Education course of the DIETs of a particular Indian State, I got the following mail from a teacher educator who was also a member of the team which was developing course material for language papers. The topics were: “Understanding Language and Early Literacy”, “Proficiency in English and Pedagogy of English”. The mail written in Hindi says, “डाईट विजिट के दौरान मैंने/ हमारे कई साथियीं ने वहाँ के Teachers and Pupil teachers दोनों की ही स्थिति को देखा| वे अंग्रेज़ी तो दूर, हिंदी में भी उतने प्रवीण नहीं हैं| Pupil teachers के लिए दो से तीन पृष्ठों के हिंदी आलेख पढ़ना भी कठिन कार्य है|” ( While visiting the DIETS, we have observed the language proficiency of the teacher educators and the their trainees. Not to speak of English, the trainers as well as their trainees are not proficient in Hindi. For the ‘pupil teachers’, it is a very difficult task to read two or three pages of an article written in Hindi.”) This report made me sad. What will these would be teachers (the trainees of the DIETs) do after completing their Diploma in teacher Education! I wondered. If you can’t read a few pages written in your mother tongue, how will you teach that language to your pupils? I wonder if the development of course materials for a Diploma course in Teacher Education for the ‘would be teachers’ who are not proficient in any language will serve any practical purpose!
In nutrition, DIET is the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism, in the Indian education system, DIET is an organization entrusted with the responsibility of teacher education at the elementary level. But go to a DIET (District Institutes of Education and Training) in any part of the country, you will be appalled by the lack of diets in these DIETs! Academically, they are the victims of malnutrition.
Right from the Kothari Commission 1964-66 to the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education (NCFTE 2009), the professional preparation of the teachers has been recognized to be crucial for the qualitative improvement of education, and keeping in view the paramount importance of the professional preparation of teachers, a number of teacher education institutes including the District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) have been established across the country over the years. As the teacher educators of these teacher education institutes are entrusted with the responsibility of facilitating and enhancing the professional competence of the teachers and the student-teachers at the various stages of school education, various commissions and policy statements have also stressed the need for enhancing the professional competence of these teacher educators. But, unfortunately, the teacher education institutes where these teacher educators are involved in both the pre-service as well as the in-service teacher education programmes, often take for granted the professional competence of these teacher educators. Far from being the centres for cultivating academic rigour and critical reflection for developing pedagogical practices, these teacher education institutes are often reduced to formal training institutes churning out would be teachers years after years.
Lamenting on the lack of academic rigour noticed in the existing teacher education programmes of various teacher training institutes, Chattopadhyaya Commission, 1983-85 remarked, “ Institutes of teacher education have become breeding grounds of academic stagnation and resistance to change. The training of teachers happens in insular, intellectually impoverished environments that are severed from ground realities as well as the aims of education they espouse. Such intellectual isolation actively discourages educational theorization and the growth of disciplinary and interdisciplinary enquiry.” The intellectually impoverished environments of many teacher training institutes discourage the urge for professional development lying dormant in the minds of many a teacher educators engaged in the pre-service and in-service training programmes. Emphasizing the urgent need for developing teacher educators, NCEFT, 2009 made a special reference to the systemic and academic overhauling of the DIETs which are expected to play a pivotal role in the field of teacher education at the grass root level. The NCEFT 2009 pointed out the present scenario prevailing in the DIETs in a very unambiguous manner. “Currently, DIETs find themselves under-equipped in required faculty capabilities, the faculty appointed do not possess basic experience in primary school teaching, insights into primary education problems and professional skills in teacher training and research.” The concern for the professional skill development of the teacher educators and the need for developing their knowledge-base for professional growth are the recurrent themes of NCEFT 2009 which comes down heavily on the absence of specially qualified teacher educators in elementary education and suggests that the “ preparation of teacher educators for the elementary stage needs the inclusion of a variety of scholarship from the sciences, social science, mathematics and the languages.”
Teacher training institutes of India need total overhauling and a pragmatic course of action. We cannot allow the under qualified teacher educators to ruin the future of millions of primary school children across the country. ” Some thing is rotten in the State of Denmark!” but we are afraid of calling a spade a spade. “sada satyam bruat, opriyam satyam ma bruat” . Always speak the truth, don’t speak the unpleasant truth!!!!

Unlocking my heart with a new language

Learning a new language is always a challenge as well as a reward at any point of time in our life. Just as Shakespeare unlocked his heart with his sonnets, don’t we want to unlock our heart with a new language?
When I joined the University three years back, I attended a one month course in Spoken Kannada arranged by our University as I thought that learning a new language,( the State language of Karnataka, South India) would be an asset for me emotionally, socially and a culturally. I attended all the classes enthusiastically and religiously, the instructor was very kind and supportive, the class mates were cooperative and we had a lot of fun too. But the limited exposure to a new language which is totally different from my other tongues failed me miserably when I tried to interact with the Kannada speaking people outside the classroom. The situational language teaching which taught me the functional use of Kannada in specific situations did not work in the real field.
“auto, hosa roadge borthara?”(auto, will you go to the Hosa road?), “ munde hogi” (go staright), “ illi Nilsi” (Stop here), “uta aita?” ( Had lunch?), “Hegidhira?” (How are you?). “Chennagide” (fine), “thumba chennagude” ( very nice), “tea beku, coffee bera” ( I want tea, not coffee)…… well, I know how to use these expressions, but the day to day interaction with the common people speaking Kannada demands more than these expressions. Though my month long formal Kannada class introduced me to a new language, I am not confident enough to use it for social interaction. I wonder, why? Though I live in a society where Kannada is the dominant language, though I have the motivation and the urge to learn the language, I failed and failed miserably.
The spoken variety of Kannada that the people speak is far away from the bookish Kannada that I learnt in my class. In normal speech, many expressions are shortened, morphophonemic changes take place regularly and the contexts make many known expressions unknown. Hedging is another area that confounds me. But what contributed to my failure are the kind responses of my interlocutors. When the native speakers of Kannada find that I am struggling with my Kannada, they immediately switch over either to Hindi or English. If I were a child, my companions would not have done that. They might have laughed at me for my inappropriate use of the new language, but they would have continued with their own language providing me the necessary linguistic environment.
There is a popular belief that the younger the learner, the quicker the learning process and the better the outcomes. It is believed that older learners of a second language rarely achieve the native-like fluency that younger learners display. Well, I don’t believe in the ‘critical period hypothesis’ and I don’t hope to achieve native like fluency in Kannada. All, that I want is to be a competent user of a new language even after 60. Then, what are the impediments? It seems that you cannot learn a new language without a total immersion in the target language. Don’t try to be a language learner, try to be a language user. Language learning is a performing art and in order to perform well, you need a platform. I could not learn Kannada well as I am yet to get a platform to perform.
Learning the Kannada alphabet was not easy too. The Kannada language has some important features that make it unique in relation to the languages I know (Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and English). Unlike English, in which the letters of printed words map to the speech sounds, Kannada is an alpha-syllabary language based on the ‘akshara ‘system, in which each ‘akshara’ maps to phonology at the level of the syllable. Again, unlike Assamese, Bengali and Hindi which are comprised of less than 40 letter units; Kannada is made up of over 474 CV symbols, along with diacritic marks for consonants.
The path of language learning is not always full of roses, it is a long journey full of linguistic as well as non-linguistic challenges. But, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep”.

Materials for teaching English in a non-native context

Creating suitable materials for teaching English in a non-native context is a challenging proposition even for an established material writer. Apart from the theoretical issues involved in the planning and the actual production of the materials, the material writers on English language teaching are often confronted by the diverse English language teaching scenario prevailing in the non-English speaking countries of the world. The question of the suitability and the authenticity of the material from the point of view of pedagogy and cultural sensitivity haunts a material writer of an English textbook right from the conceptualization to the actual publication of the book.
I remember the days when I had to teach communicative English to a group of undergraduate science students. The course book published by an international publisher and prescribed by my Indian University for the “Functional English Course” had a lesson which started with an advertisement published in an English newspaper. The caption of the advertisement said, “Wanted a wife for a Month”. In the same book, there was a task for the learners, “Tell your friend how you spent your last week end,” Well, I had to use these materials for facilitating communicative activities in a large class of 18 year old boys and girls. An advertisement published in a local daily catering to the needs of tourists in an island and an innocent topic like ‘week end’ or ‘ Friday night’ were too embarrassing for some of my colleagues who used the said textbooks in other sections of the same class!
The use of culturally unacceptable issues in English textbooks used in non-English speaking countries can make the teaching-learning of English a very uncomfortable experience for the teachers as well as the learners. Therefore, in order to make the English course books ‘global’, publishers and course book writers should be careful of the ‘sanitisation of content’ (Gray,2002:166).
But, a mere ‘sanitization of content’ in the English textbook is not enough from a pedagogic point of view. I would, rather suggest that English textbook writers who write textbooks for the countries of the ‘expanding’ and the ‘outer’ circles should aim at ‘deculturizing’ the course books. The mere avoidance of culturally inappropriate materials in the global English text books does not yield the desired learning outcome. Deculturiszing the English textbooks by incorporating locally available resources appears to be a more meaningful alternative. The inclusion of local topics, concerns and the perspectives of the local people make the course book acceptable, socially as well as psychologically to the non-native learners of English.
Balancing ‘globalisation’ and ‘glocalisation’ is a difficult task for an English course book writer who wants to write an English textbook aimed at capturing the international market. Too much ‘glocalisation’ may affect the ‘authenticity’ of the material presented in the English textbook. Can we present English in our textbooks without taking note of the ‘target language culture’? How to make a balance between ‘inclusivity’ and ‘authenticity’. Any answer?
Tomlinson’s book, ‘Materials Development on Language Teaching’ (CUP), Block and Cameron (ed) book, ‘Globalization and Language Teaching’ (Routledge) and Canagarajah’s ‘Resisting linguistic imperialism in English Teaching’ ( (OUP) are good resources for refining our theoretical understanding related to material production in ELT, but the actual production of good authentic materials suitable for non-native learners of English needs something more than a theoretical understanding of the principles of material production. Empathy with your English learners coupled with a sound theoretical understanding of the principles of material production in language can make you a successful course book writer in English in a non-native context.

Using parallel texts in two languages for teaching English in a non-native context

The aim of English language teaching in India, according to the Position Paper on English Language Teaching prepared in connection with the National Curriculum Framework 2005, is the creation of multilinguals who can enrich other Indian languages. This vision statement of the Position Paper prompts us to examine the question of using multilingualism as a teaching strategy in our English classrooms. Multilingualism, which is defined as speaking two or more languages, is often viewed as an impediment to the teaching and learning of a second language. A survey of the ELT scenario across the globe indicates that the importance of the first language is often minimized in the second language classroom (Cook,2001) and it is no wonder that many Indian English teachers avoid the use of the mother of the pupils in their classrooms.
Taking note of the current ELT scenario of the country, the said Position Paper on ELT states that at present, “the mother tongue enters the English class as a surreptitious intruder” The Position Paper suggests that “ the mother tongue need not be an interloper but a resource” and it can occur in tandem with the first language. In spite of this unequivocal policy statement made by the ELT experts almost years back, the immense possibility of the use of multilingualism as a resource has not been fully explored by the ELT practitioners of the country. Though the said Position Paper recommends the introduction of parallel texts in more than one language for a successful ELT pedagogy, little has been done till today to implement the recommendation.
Metalinguistic awareness, knowing about and being able to talk about how language is structured and how it functions is a special advantage of multilingualism ( Cook,1995; Jessner, 2006, Svalberg,2007). Multilingual children learning more than one language gain in flexibility because they can understand and analyze concepts using more than one language system. A lot of research work has been done to find out the correlation between bilingualism and cognitive ability (Peal and Lambert 1962; Cummins, 1984;Hakuta and Diaz 1985), but all these studies were done with reference to the bilingual education of young children. How does cross language transfer of skills help multilingual adult learners in developing their language awareness in the target language? The role of bilingualism in academic learning in a context where the learners’ competence in two languages is of varying degrees seems to be an unexplored are of research.
It is an established fact that interpretative skills are transferrable across languages and an exposure to the stylistic analysis of a literary text in the first language helps in the analysis of the same text written in a second language. Adult learners who are already familiar with a systematic interpretative study of a text in their first language can easily grasp the stylistic features of the same text written in a second language. By using what the learners already know of a text written in their first language, they can explore the text written in a second language without any inhibition. By comparing the way language is used in the text written in the first language as well as in the second, adult bilingual learners acquire a mastery of the second language unavailable to the monolingual learners.
L1 and L2 do not reside in two separate compartments in the mind of the bilingual learners. L1 and L2 are interwoven in the L2 user’s mind in vocabulary (Beauvillain & Grainger, 1987), in syntax (Cook, 1994), in phonology (Obler,1982), and in pragmatics (Locaster,1987). Therefore, ‘learning an L2 is not just the adding of rooms to your house by building an extension at the back: it is the rebuilding of all internal walls ( Cook, 200:407). The use of parallel texts written in L1 and L2, therefore reinforces a learner’s repertoire in both the languages.
Has anybody used parallel texts in two languages systematically for a considerable period of time for teaching English to the adult learners in a non-native context?

Writing for Scientists Workshop Notes


There are so many courses available on ‘creative writing’ and ‘academic writing in English.’ But can we teach ‘creative writing’ or ‘academic writing’ as we teach the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing? Here is a nice blog in which the blogger says, “the whole process of working with formal written language is one of fine-tuning as opposed to actually teaching” Don’t you think so? We should try to facilitate the writing experience of the learner who is interested in exploring the world of creative writing or the genre called academic writing in English.

Originally posted on unwrapping the education box :

Below are some extracts from my talk for TESOL France/CUP last Saturday, as my slides were really minimal I thought this would be more useful. Still in bed recovering from the bronchitis so apologies for lack of proof-reading, proper conclusion etc.. A big thank you to Bethany Cagnol and Terry Elliot and all those of you who attended and gave me support.

In my experience the whole process of working with formal written language is one of fine-tuning as opposed to actually teaching.I don’t really believe that one can teach writing skills in the same manner as one can deductively teach a grammar point.

Writing is such a unique expression of the self and while we can make people aware of register, range of lexical terms, the use and effects of stylistic devices, rhetorical devices and conventions of the given field, it is unsustainable to actually make someone write a…

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