This article summarizes differences between American and Chinese graduate students when asked to imagine their future reading instruction.
Training future teachers to teach reading is important and challenging, yet research and theorization of native English speakers and university-level reading is largely ignored in comparison with writing (Sullivan, 2010); in particular, advanced reading strategies are too often expected of university-level students with little instruction provided (Orlando, Caverly, Sweetham, and Flippo, 2003). I was keenly aware of this “reading gap” as I taught my graduate-level methods course in teaching writing (and reading) for new graduate assistants from both the TESOL M.A. and Literature and Language M.A. programs at Winona State University.
My methods course, Teaching College Writing, which also provides the data for this study, is not a TESOL course. The course presents the theory, methods, and outcomes of the American composition classroom, and therein the methods and goals of a first-year writing course (i.e., Freshmen English) housing both native English-speaking undergraduates and non-native English-speaking undergraduates with requisite scores or coursework to enter first-year composition. The study detailed in this article evolved from my observation that my American graduate students and Chinese graduate students had differently patterned responses to our readings on reading instruction.
I became interested in differences in graduate students’ early reflections on reading instruction because the topic of preparing teachers to teach critical reading was a departure from the themes of the basic TESOL literature I had been exposed to as a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, yet the topic is of interest to both TESOL and non-TESOL instructors engaged in teacher preparation. A meta-review by Moussu and Llurda (2008) positions critical reading and imagined reading instruction by future TESOL teachers as worthy of study. In their review of the literature on non-native English-speaking English language teachers, Moussu and Llurda found that language education programs can empower non-native English speakers in the following ways, which I agree with, but find too general to address some unique aspects of teacher preparation:
- courses in grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and culture;
- collaboration between native and non-native English-speaking teachers;
- awareness of culture shock, language learning difficulties, and other intercultural and sociolinguistic issues to native speakers.
I’m not sure if future teachers’ initial thoughts on critical reading are covered in Massou and Llurda’s three points. Critical reading moves beyond practice in grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and basic cultural knowledge, Massou and Llurda’s first point. I suppose critical reading as practiced in Western educational institutions (and elsewhere) can fall under the basic umbrellas of intercultural and sociolinguistic issues, Moussu and Llurda’s third point, but Moussu and Llurda embed these issues through informal education for native speakers, not through the study of initial insights during teacher education in a methods course; additionally, such general terms as “intercultural” and “sociolinguistic” are too weak to say much about student-teachers’ comprehension of the reading process.
Canagarajah (1999) differentiates between the shallowness of the native speaker fallacy and, I believe, the deeper concerns of training future teachers. Canaragajah states that the “native speaker fallacy also contributes to a narrow definition of expertise in ELT. If it is one’s accent and pronunciation that qualify one to be a teacher, then […] professionalism developed in ESL is flimsy” (p. 84). Attitudes and early formation of how to teach reading, in particular, critical reading, are not part of the native speaker fallacy based in accent and pronunciation. Early attitudes on critical reading are the deeper, non-“flimsy” professionalism worth investigating.
Moussu and Llurda’s (2008) meta-review locates just two studies surveying TESOL teacher supervision of native and non-native speakers, leading the Moussu and Llurda to conclude that an “increase in research on teacher educators’ perspectives […] is needed to help NNS student teachers be better prepared to teach in different contexts” (p. 341). It is in this spirit of teacher educators’ perspectives to supplement student self-reporting that I undertook the study.
Differences in L1 and L2 Graduate Students Responses to Reading
I am heartened by the TESOL mantra that any number of Englishes exist in the world, and any specific variety is informed by differences in culture, region, race, class, level and forms of education, and related social, cultural and political phenomena. This dismisses the too easy binary of “native” and “non-native” speaker. Similar to others, I see the students in this study as each on a continuum (Moussu and Llurda, 2008) that defies any attempt at labeling them “native” and “non-native” speaker. Rather, they are best viewed as having various degrees of “ownership” (Higgins, 2003; Norton, 1997) of not only the English language, but in this case of academic language as well as teaching and professional skills. This study is meant to capture a moment in their journey on this continuum, to illustrate how they are moving toward ownership of the teaching methods we discussed in the seminar while also illuminating their different cultural and educational backgrounds that affect ownership of not just language, but applied teacher preparation.
What is reading?
Reading is a complex process that is often separated into various facets for study. These parts include decoding, a variety of domain knowledges including vocabulary, linguistic structure, discourse, and world knowledge as well as cognitive capacities such as memory and access capabilities (Prater, 2009). Additionally, reading at higher educational levels often entails the resolution of contradictory information, demands response from the reader, and can include a variety of procedures including integration of information, evaluation, critique, synthesis, and use of information (Grabe, 2009). These latter response-based or use-based reading procedures both support and are the results of the critical thinking we ask students to perform through reading and writing (Sullivan, 2014). These forms of reading, reading-to-write, and critical thinking are not unique to English. Literacy’s forms and preferences vary by culture and genre and are typically studied in the field of contrastive rhetoric (Connor, 2008). My major concern for this study is not culturally-influenced critical thinking or contrastive rhetoric. Due to my goals of teacher preparation, I had and have a different concern: whether or not students were including the basic forms of critical reading from our methods seminar into their imagined university-level reading instruction. This is the focus of my investigation.
After much reading over nine weeks of our seminar on a variety of social, cultural, and cognitive research and theory pertaining to mainly university-level writing and reading, the tenth week of class focused on a set of chapters and articles on reading instruction in both L1 and L2 environments. The data for this article was generated by my Week 10 writing prompt asking students to summarize, apply, reflect on, or otherwise synthesize course chapters and articles on reading. Mainly, I wanted students to imagine a use or application for our readings’ various perspectives on reading instruction in their own imagined classroom. This article examines those written responses, comparing and contrasting through best case examples six American graduate students and four non-native English-speaking (L2) Chinese graduate students’ imagined reading instruction. The bolded sections within the direct quotes are designed to demonstrate particularly illustrative examples of the differences between the two groups of students.
1. Chinese students’ discussion of critical thinking was sometimes interfered with by less critical reading strategies.
Because my course was dedicated to preparing new teachers, mainly toward the goals of a first-year composition course (i.e., Freshman English), much of the course and reading was dedicated to various forms of text-based critical thinking mentioned in the definitions of reading above (summary, analysis, critique, synthesis, etc.). As an educator of teachers, I am always looking at which instructional concepts students easily absorb, which are mentioned but seem unformed or under-conceptualized, and which remain unmentioned by students.
In the initial written responses to the readings, which were due before class, and which asked students to synthesize our articles on reading and hypothesize a basic reading pedagogy, I noticed that Chinese students tended to omit the term “critical thinking,” from their reading responses or had less elaborate detail and discussion of the concept. I also noticed two Chinese students had inserted “creativity” as a major goal of reading instruction despite my not using the term “creativity” in our course and this term also not appearing in our readings.
Of four Chinese students in this study, just one student, CZ, attempts to define critical thinking as we had spoken of it in class. In CZ’s written response below, which is the most elaborate of the Chinese students’ responses, we do not see an elaboration on the moves of critical thinking in a text, but only a general summary of the stages of critical thinking. CZ does acknowledge critical response, the idea of challenging a text’s statements or moving toward a divergent interpretation or response, a goal less common in the Chinese culture and educational system than the American (Markel, 2010; Mason, 2008). CZ, however, was the only Chinese student to note Chinese convergence as a potential impediment to Western critical thinking in the reading-writing classroom. CZ writes:
The challenge for international students might be critical thinking/reading which stems from the lack exposure to critical thinking and thinking skills. Thinking skills are highly valued and widely taught in American education courses. Benjamin Bloom “arranges these skills in hierarchical order with later ones incorporating the former”(Peterson, “Meeting the needs of international students”):
Those thinking skills might not be addressed in an international student’s learning experience. And international students may also have different thinking habits when they are reading. For example, more often a Chinese student might not challenge or evaluate the author’s thoughts but converge the author’s idea when reading.
CZ lists Bloom’s Taxonomy of critical thinking and thus demonstrates a great absorption of a standard facet of university-level reading in the U.S., but CZ does not connect it deeply to textual interpretation, although CZ mentions “challenge” and “evaluation” of an author, which are clearly critical reading strategies. CZ is the only Chinese student to outline a continuum of critical thinking options, and CZ is also the only Chinese student to note the potential difference in reading instruction in Chinese and U.S. educational cultures (convergence-divergence).
CZ’s response clearly outlines the grounds of critical thinking, even if the examples leave a teacher educator unsure of the depth of understanding or how to get students and oneself to perform these moves. The other three Chinese students did not address a continuum or forms of critical thinking, nor did they address cultural differences in reading (convergence-divergence). As later examples suggest, Chinese students tended to not differentiate their Chinese reading instruction and their developing understanding of Western critical reading or thinking, which suggests that after nine weeks of graduate-level instruction, the integration of Western-style critical reading and thinking still requires ample support, especially when a future teacher’s teaching experience in America contrasts with their student experience in their native region.
2. L1 American TESOL students focused on critical thinking as not just counterargument, but often included synthesis as a major reason for reading. They also focused on cognitive dissonance in their classroom.
The L1 American TESOL students’ responses routinely discussed critical thinking as counterargument (divergence), similar to CZ above, and they also discussed the synthesis of ideas and multiple texts as important in reading instruction. They also engaged the idea of creating cognitive dissonance—presenting students with information that challenges their current beliefs—in their classroom more than the Chinese students. Each of these ideas—counterargument, synthesis, and cognitive dissonance–had appeared in the readings for the week of this study and were concepts heavily mentioned over the first half of the course.
For example, American TESOL student ME focuses on not just counterargument, but synthesis of multiple sources for argument or counterargument. ME states:
I think that the idea stated in Horning’s “Reading Across the Curriculum” about students not being able to “use sources in ways that capture a full argument or that synthesize several sources in terms of their overall discussions” (p. 77-78) is one of the big challenges students face when writing about what they are reading.
In addition to American TESOL students having a greater focus on argument and synthesis in their imagined reading pedagogy, the American and Chinese students also focused on different potential struggles of their future students. Below, Chinese student CZ focuses on specific instruction to build vocabulary, CZ’s imagined major struggle for L2 readers, as opposed to L1 students’ focus on synthesis and cognitive dissonance. CZ was the only Chinese student to consistently mention critical thinking, but CZ details critical thinking only in connection with a reading guide for vocabulary; the specifics remain unmentioned. CZ writes
Based on all the challenges facing the international students, I would have my students keep a vocabulary journal and I would hang out reading guide to my students to help them better underhand the text but also encourage them to think critically.
Chinese student CZ, who best integrated critical thinking into her imagined reading instruction of the four Chinese students, consistently mentions critical thinking in the responses, but in undetailed fashion. American TESOL students often imagined much more specific and fluid solutions for teaching critical thinking, as opposed to only defining or mentioning it.
For instance, American student ME imagines a specific form of critical reading and instruction. ME focuses on education as a process of inquiry and continuous questioning when writing:
I try to find some “bigger picture” ideas from the book. So, I will come up with questions that are not explicitly written in the text, but something that Estabrook is trying to get across to his reader. Sometimes each group will get different questions; sometimes they will be the same. Either way, we come back together as a class, and either compare our ideas, or share our different questions and answers to those questions.
While ME also isn’t highly specific here, the impetus is beyond comprehension, and the mention of sharing questions, answers, and comparing ideas presses the response toward a dialogic and inquiry-based classroom not quite seen in CZ’s imagined classroom, which is based in reading guides that will somehow address critical reading. We also see in ME, and later in other American students, hints of introducing students to the discourse of a reading, a critical act in which students identify the “doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” that embed social values in language (Gee 1989, p. 7). Such a reading strategy is highly critical, asking students to identify author biases or examine how language naturalizes social values and ideology. Chinese students tended to mention more concrete goals from vocabulary to comprehension and didn’t move into critical investigation of the discourse level.
3. For Chinese students, the concept of creativity appears often; this concept did not appear in the American TESOL MA students’ responses.
Two Chinese students, LY and BB, focus on creativity, imagination, feelings, and similar emotive ideas when imagining the purposes of reading in their classrooms. BB does mention multiple interpretations of a text in the passage below, and we see BB mention a connection to critical thinking, although the method is not explicated. The Chinese students’ answers based in creativity and emotion are reminiscent of research into Chinese educational writing and Chinese teacher feedback where sincerity and feeling are valued as much as objectivity and critical analysis (Newkirk, 1997). Thus, emotive or creative emphases in Chinese students’ imagined reading instruction may be no surprise because these emphases were greatly valued by former teachers, but Western teacher educators need to be aware of how deeply this feedback style may influence the reading instruction and preparation of teachers who will need to differentiate, not blur, the values of Chinese literacy instruction and Western literacy and critical thinking.
For example, Chinese student LY’s answer below is noble and encouraging, not wishing to turn off students to education. However, the ways in which one can teach creativity, or what creativity may be, remain unclear. LY writes:
I agree with [Hull and Rose’s] opinion, I think if reading or writing are just for academic purpose, students might lost their creativity and imaginary which is more powerful to their development. Even though academic ability is needed in college education and aids students to acquire more knowledge and skills, but the final purpose of reading and writing is more than that.
LY’s point is a good one, situating motivation and lifelong learning over humdrum academics, but as an instructor, I am not sure that LY is absorbing new ideas related to critical thinking and reading. American students had a higher-degree of specific questions or critical goals peppered throughout their responses. Below, Chinese BB offers a response involving two staples of American composition theory—the construction of knowledge and multiple interpretation, which become termed “creativity thinking.” BB states:
The unconventional interpretation in [Hull and Rose’s] Wooden Shack interested me most. Based on people’s experience, knowledge and background, they may have different interpretations. A good poem, as one of my literature classes teacher said, should evoke different audiences’ feelings. Most of the poems have more than just one interpretation. Students can learn from each other by sharing their interpretations, Allowing different interpretations may also helps students with their creative thinking. Looking at a matter in various aspects may enhance their critical thinking, too.
Interestingly, BB separates “creative thinking” from “critical thinking,” although BB doesn’t define either. Clearly, though, through their responses, both of these Chinese graduate students see creativity as different than critical thinking. Both responses share a statement about emotive purposes of reading first, with forms of criticalness creeping in later. The differences and instructional forms they may take, though, remain blurry. What is most noteworthy, I believe, is the problem of blurry definitions of critical thinking, but also the Chinese students’ mindset toward motivation and creativity, which was of lesser degree in the L1 American students.
MHJ, an American TESOL student, when discussing the Hull and Rose article “Wooden Shack,” doesn’t move toward multiple interpretations of a text or link learning to emotive or motivational premises. Instead, MHJ moves toward diagnosis of student problems, something that the Chinese students did not do.
This issue may be compounded with less exposure to academic texts, a smaller repertoire of academic vocabulary, and fewer academic reading strategies. For students with these compounding issues, reading and ultimately writing become much more difficult tasks in a college composition class. To make matters worse, these students may not even know why they are, or that they are missing the mark (how was Robert to know that wooden shacks were symbols of poverty, instead of places to hang one’s laundry, and this would never have been revealed had it not been for his individual conference with the teacher); if their starting point of understanding is askew, every point thereafter is likely to be askew (i.e. written work based on the readings).
All of these struggles have a clear connection in the L2 student; L2 students come with a different perspective and a different lens with which to view our world, much like Robert in Wooden Shack. They also come with a more limited scope of academic experience. These issues’ connections lie in the results: ESL students will struggle more with college-level reading and writing activities.
Whereas the Chinese TESOL students discuss the beauty of multiple interpretation and creativity, address interior motivation, or offer a general prescription and philosophy for reading instruction, American MHJ focuses on diagnosing the reason for student misreadings. For Chinese students, the murky concept of “creativity” seems to override any strong moves toward diagnosis of imagined student problems, and Chinese students didn’t incorporate or summarize our articles’ reasons students make mistakes. This lack of attention to or prediction of imagined student problems by Chinese students was a marked difference from the American students.
We see these differences play out in varying approaches to teaching the same text. The Hull and Rose article included a poem about a wooden shack that generated their original case study. BB, a Chinese student, writes of her own imagined instruction with the poem that
Guided reading questions will be handed to different groups (questions would be like: what is the author writing, who is he writing to, why he want to write this article?
Based on discussion, students may also need to prepare for role play (this depends on the content of the reading). After all the activities done, have a whole class discussion about the previous activities and the reading; Help students brain storm from the reading and activities for writing
Chinese BB has nailed down the basics of rhetorical analysis—genre, audience, and purpose, but mentions neither student struggles nor cognitive dissonance—although time to “brainstorm” could include cognitive dissonance; we don’t know. While Chinese BB has an instructional sequence for a small-to-large group discussion, BB imagines no trouble or struggle with reading. Below, American MHJ has a slightly different set of questions that go beyond comprehension and text-based concerns for the same poem. MHJ doesn’t include questions on genre, audience, and authorial intent; instead, MHJ includes reflective questions addressing students’ struggle and ends with a meta-level reflective question. MHJ offers her imagined lesson plan:
1. What was the most interesting idea in this passage to you? Why? 2. What idea/s or section/s were confusing to you? Why?
After writing, students break into groups of 3-4. One at a time, students read their written responses to the questions, then listen while the other group members respond to the first student with their own interpretations.
Students will then have another 3 – 4 minutes to process the group discussion by answering the following question in another freewrite.
*What idea do you feel you understand better or understand differently after your group discussion? Why?
Similar to MHJ, AP, an L1 Literature and Language student, focuses on rhetorical issues, prediction, then discourse-based cultural issues (Gee’s being-doing) for an imagined teaching of My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan. AP writes
Why is Rebekah Nathan writing? What is her purpose?
Who is Nathan’s audience? How do you know?
Reread the first paragraph of chapter one, can you predict what the rest of the chapter is about?
What purpose does the title of the book’s first chapter, “Welcome to ‘AnyU,’” serve? Why might Nathan have chosen to use this title?
Define ethnography, anthropology, and discourse.
While Chinese BB included questions of audience and purpose in her imagined plan, AP’s final questions place students in an interpretive position and acknowledge the discourse of American education—the disciplinary perspectives of anthropology will color the ideas in the reading. To some extent, AP uses prediction in the third and fourth questions to help identify readers’ struggles, with identification of struggles and cognitive dissonance appearing more in American students than in Chinese students. Although these student responses are hard to group, we see a slowly developing pattern in which cognitive dissonance, discourse-level concerns, and reflection on interpretive struggles appear more often in L1 American students.
4. Reconciling Chinese students’ use of the terms creativity and critical thinking with an American student’s use of the same terms.
TH, an L1 Literature and Language student, does comment on creativity through multiple interpretations, much as two Chinese students did. However, TH makes a move toward being critical of teachers who encourage multiple interpretations without introducing students to the rules of interpretation. TH states that
An important aspect of my education and of my decision to teach was the way some of my early teachers approached differing interpretations. Most notably, I remember a high school teacher saying that he enjoyed having his students find new interpretations of texts because it enlightened him, exercised their minds and their interpretive abilities. He loved it when his students went outside the conventional and exercised their minds, and sometimes, best of all, they taught him something new.
This is not to say that there are no ‘wrong’ answers: there are. However, unless an answer is so far off the intention of the text, and provided the student can actually back up the idea with textual evidence and logical reasoning.
For the Chinese students who earlier mentioned creativity or their former education, creativity was defined as multiple interpretations of a text. However, Chinese students offered no critical commentary toward their former teachers or mentioned “wrong” interpretations, whereas American TH does. TH mentions creativity through multiple interpretations, but creativity must be based in “textual evidence and logical reasoning,” which suggests a framework for critical thinking necessary to think “creatively” that was absent in the Chinese students’ explanation of creativity or the act of interpretation in reading instruction.
One frame for aggregating these results stems from Carter and Long (1991), who suggest the following breakdown for reading models:
- Cultural model: reading as a window into culture and accumulated wisdom
- Language model: development of language skills in classroom
- Personal growth model: growth results from a reader’s experience not just in accumulated wisdom, but pleasure in learning.
Using Carter and Long’s models, I would suggest that L2 Chinese TESOL students’ commentary or imagined reading instruction often focused on the personal growth model—in particular, this explains the Chinese students’ emphasis on creativity and multiple interpretation without the supplementary features of academic interpretation that make it appear objective (TH’s claim and evidence, for example). When the Chinese students spoke of the language model, they often focused on vocabulary and comprehension, eschewing or only mentioning without details synthesis and other higher-order concerns we had discussed in class and that are defined by Grabe as instrumental to reading (and that were mentioned more often by the American students). One consistent form of critical thinking Chinese students mentioned was multiple interpretations of a single text, which may suggest a greater comfort with literary interpretation and less comfort with dialogic, argumentative response or synthesis of texts that dominate American university composition courses. The focus on the personal growth model may also explain why the Chinese students mentioned more often a reading pedagogy based in creativity defined by motivation, life-long love of learning, and non-academic reasons for reading in academic environments. These are, after all, the stuff of personal growth.
Chinese students’ definitions and examples of critical thinking, less elaborate than those of the American students, typically did not attempt to diagnose or predict student reading problems to the degree of American students, nor did Chinese students’ invented reading questions engage cognitive dissonance or ideological discourses as greatly. These patterns, too, could be explained through Chinese students’ emphasis on personal growth, which is mainly an individual, subjective phenomenon, and their lessened emphasis on the more objective cultural model and language model, models in which constructing knowledge (cultural or rhetorical) and the meta-process of how knowledge is constructed are at a premium, but also models representing knowledge of American culture, sociolinguistics, and academics that these young Chinese graduate students haven’t had lengthy immersion in themselves. It is hard to distill exact reasons for these differences in imagined reading instruction, but reasons likely include these L2 students’ own experiences in their native or English language education, all students’ cultural preferences for certain critical-rhetorical modes, the influence of all students’ initial TESOL courses that were concurrent with my own course, or L2 students’ lesser familiarity with the critical moves of American universities.
Differences could also be attributable to specific, commonly used tools, such as vocabulary journals, a staple of TESOL classrooms. Imagining common tools for reading instruction may send new teachers’ focus to these tools’ conventional uses, which may shorten, not extend, their imagined reading instruction. Also, in mixed program seminars (TESOL and non-TESOL students), each body of students is likely imagining themselves as their future student. This insight comes from not only the Chinese students’ preference for ESL teaching tools and concerns, but from the L1 American TESOL graduate students, whose responses acknowledge L2 issues more often than the American Literature and Language graduate students, but whose critical fluency in imagined reading instruction was higher than the Chinese students. The American TESOL students’ familiarity with TESOL can be attributed to their initial TESOL training, but there fluency discussing critical reading, cognitive dissonance, and related concepts likely stems from their years as a student in U.S. high schools and universities.
I will conclude by saying that I use Carter and Long’s models to help group the results in a meaningful, clear manner; however, reducing the American and Chinese students’ responses to these models can clearly over-simplify the complex answers of each student in the study. Clearly the Chinese students in this study, as with the American students, have a great deal of ownership of language, educational culture, and academic know-how, and its forms and value do not fit neatly into any one model or context. As Canagarajah (1999) stipulates “if one values the strategies and styles of learning the students themselves bring to SLA in order to acquire the language efficiently in terms of their own communicative needs, he or she cannot impose on the students the authority of native speaker teachers or native Englishes” (p. 90). The students’ location on the continuum is valuable and a matter of difference, not deficit. The implication, then, is that teacher educators have the challenge of creating teacher education strategies based in difference, not deficit, for novice teachers. The “difference, not deficit” mantra is shaped by the results of studies on university-level Chinese students in Western classrooms (Holmes, 2004), but I’d suggest it applies to mixed L1-L2 teacher preparation too. I’d also suggest that this small sample size does not provide definitive answers, but rather opens up a space for productive questions in either further research or scaffolding student experiences in methods courses.
I also believe that my study points out the need to have novice teachers practice organically creating teaching materials, as opposed to simply having students depend upon instruction manuals and a textbook’s discussion questions. My request–to have students imagine reading instruction–is one strategy to help more seasoned instructors pinpoint which elements of reading are being absorbed by novice teachers and which require more support. This is especially true when teaching taxonomies of critical reading. Requesting imagined reading instruction of my students certainly helped me pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and was the genesis of this article as well. Pairing native and non-native speakers is an additional strategy to balance student experience in diverse language classrooms (Massou and Llurda, 2008).
Future teachers will develop as not only reading teachers, but as readers themselves when they become aware of the many critical reading choices to consider and instructionally deliver. Having future teachers imagine reading instruction can help teacher educators identify points of emphasis and de-emphasis to support novice teachers’ continued movement across their personal and professional language continuums. Teacher educators should help these talented young professionals “demonstrate to their students what is possible to do with a second language and their appreciation for that language and its culture” (Moussu and Llurda, 2008, p. 323).
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