Category Archives: Different ways to use a coursebook

Repeated reading: some activities to build reading fluency

 repeated reading[Thanks to @mkofab at ELTpics for the photo.]

In my last post, I looked at reading while listening, and how it might help learners both to read more fluently, and to acquire more language. Reading while listening is a form of something known as ‘repeated reading’, a strategy whereby a student reads a passage several times, either silently or aloud. The idea, as discussed in the previous entry, is to develop greater fluency or automaticity, and there is evidence to suggest that it works, and, moreover, that it has a positive effect on the student’s language development as a whole.

But isn’t it terribly boring to just read the same passage again and again? Not according to Gorsuch and Arnold , who claim that students were ‘delighted to see such powerful and immediate increases in reading speed and comprehension.’ I’m sure that’s it’s true that students can be motivated simply by seeing progress. The typical way that this kind of motivation is built on in schools is by overtly measuring this progress. For example, Tomkins (2003)* suggests the following procedure:

1 Conduct a pre-test. The student reads a passage aloud while the teacher records the reading time and any mistakes. The teacher then clarifies any problems.

2 The student practises reading the passage again on their own, out loud or silently, several times.

3 The teacher records the student again and makes a note of reading time and any mistakes.

4 Teacher and student discuss the improved time (pretty much inevitable) and whether there were fewer mistakes.

I can see this working very well in some contexts, and being disastrous in others. Your call, I think.

If you don’t want to take such an overt approach, you could try thinking about real reasons why a student might need to read aloud in English, and build activities around these. For example, the class might enjoy reading a one-act play, repeatedly reading it in order to prepare for a recording. Or, many ESOL classes are made up of parents of young children, just learning to read in English at school. These parents could definitely benefit from practising reading aloud their children’s favourite books.

Or try some activities where there is a goal or outcome, other than simply improving your reading fluency. For example, a dictogloss in pairs. Student A reads the text out loud, at a natural speed, while B tries to write down as much as possible. This is repeated until B feels confident that they have the whole text. B can then read the text back to A, for checking. This works best if the more fluent reader in the pair is A, the one who initially reads the text, as this way A is able to give a good model. The activity could be extended by changing the pairs, so that B then takes away the text to dictate to a new (A) partner. This way, B also gets the repeated reading practice, but only after they have heard the next a number of times from the original A.

Choral reading, as a class, has also been shown to be very effective, but in its unadulterated form seems rather dull and childish. You could try putting a text on the board or smartboard, getting students to read it aloud as a class, and then rubbing out random words, so that they have to remember what was there. Of course, this is as much about memory as reading, but it does provide a powerful motivation. It is also a good opportunity to work on weak forms and linking- demonstrating how these occur in the text which is being read.

And, of course, repeated reading does not have to mean reading aloud. A nice activity which can be done with absolutely no preparation is to ask all the students to read the same passage silently. After one minute exactly, stop them, whether they have finished or not, and ask them note how far they got. Tell them to start the passage again, from the beginning. Stop them again after one minute and ask them if they read any further this time (they almost certainly will have done). The beauty of this activity is that it is completely differentiated, as each student is working at his or her own level, and under no obligation to expose their reading level to anyone else.

Tompkins, G. (2003). Literacy for the 21st Century: Teaching reading and writing in pre-kindergarten through grade 4. New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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Listening while reading: can it actually help develop reading skills?

[Thanks to @Sarah_WG on ELT Pics for the photo]

A little while ago I went to the recording of the listening component of my new coursebook- Real Life Global Advanced. I was surprised to discover (because nobody had ever actually mentioned it) that all the reading passages were also being recorded.

‘But how will listening to a reading passage help them develop reading skills?’ I wondered. In fact, as I have discovered by reading up on the area since, it just might.

We are increasingly aware that reading is an excellent way of developing language, as learners are exposed to language in context. However, many students read very slowly and laboriously in English, slowly decoding every word.  At this speed, it is very difficult for them to actually understand the meaning of the text because they are constantly dealing with isolated words and phrases.

When reading in our native language most of us carry out this decoding with a good degree of automaticity, leaving us free to focus on higher order comprehension processes. Think of this like learning to drive a car. When we first start learning, it seems impossible that we will ever be able to manage the gears, clutch, accelerator as well as actually look where we are going. But an experienced driver can do all these things with such automaticity that he or she can also carry on a conversation or listen to the radio, while keeping focused on changing conditions on the road.

But how can we help our learners to get to this kind of automaticity when reading? One way is, of course, by encouraging extensive reading outside of the classroom. But there is another strategy: repeated reading.

The idea behind repeated reading, which was originally developed by Samuels in 1979, is to help non fluent readers develop automaticity in their decoding. Students read and re-read a passage either aloud or silently. Think of it as drilling for readers!

Now, my first thought was that this would help with reading that particular passage, but that it would not necessarily be transferred to anything else the students might read. But research shows that I was probably wrong in that assumption.

According to Taguchi and Gorsuch (2002), for example, the ‘effects of re-reading a passage for L1 readers are carried over to a new unpracticed passage with regard to reading rate and accuracy’ and they cite Carver & Hoffman, 1981; Dowhower, 1989; Faulkner & Levy, 1994; Herman, 1985; Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985 and Samuels, 1979). It also helps with comprehension (Dowhower, 1989; Morgan & Lyon, 1979; Young et al., 1996). And finally, ‘repeated reading enables L1 readers to read in larger and more meaningful phrases’ (Dowhower, 1989).’

Now these studies all looked at L1 readers, and Taguchi and Gorsuch’s 2002 finding with L2 readers was inconclusive, for various reasons. However, it seems from a later article by Gorsuch in Language magazine.com  that there is evidence that it can work for L2 learners too. I say seems, because for some reason the end of the article is missing from the PDF!

There are lots of different ways (more fun that it might sound at first) of carrying out repeated reading, which I will look at in a follow up post, but one of the key ways is known as assisted repeated reading, and often involves using a recording of the passage being read.

The student, who will have already read the passage silently at least once, reads the passage again, possibly several times, while listening to the recording. This helps him or her to build the connections between the way the word is written, the word itself, and what it sounds like. It also exposes him or her to all the meaning inherent in the pronunciation: the pitch, tone and emphasis.

Seeing words repeatedly in context has been found to help L1 learners transfer their word recognition to other contexts much better than lists of isolated words. Grabe (1991) suggests that this may apply to L2 learners as well. I haven’t yet come across any research which proves this, but it makes perfect sense to me. After all, isn’t this just another way of getting students to ‘notice’ language in context, which most people agree helps with acquisition.

So, in the end, I concluded that having the reading texts on audio may actually be providing teachers with the opportunity to try out a different way of helping their learners both to read more fluently and to acquire language.

And this kind of practice may also help learners to read more extensively outside the classroom because if they can read more automatically, they will enjoy it more and make more sense of it.


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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Teaching methodology

Should we pre-teach vocabulary before reading- and, if so, how?

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Pre-teaching vocabulary is something that many of us were taught to do on our CELTAs or other pre-service course. I hold my hand up to having trained other teachers to do it- and to having, as a result, sat through an excruciating 20 minutes plus while trainee teachers laboriously explained word after word until the students had lost the will to live, never mind the will to read the text.

Another argument against pre-teaching is that it doesn’t train students for real-life encounters with language; that we’re spoon feeding them rather than teaching them the skills to deal with unknown words.

I am sure this is true, and I would certainly not recommend pre-teaching as a way of explaining all the words in a text that students are unlikely to know. However, done sparingly, I think it can have some value both in terms of practicality (making sure they can actually do the task you set, and that you don’t have twenty people all asking the same question, one after another) and in terms of helping to raise interest and motivation.

The questions you need to ask yourself are, I think:

–          Do the students actually need to know this word/phrase to do the task?

–          Could they guess it from context?

–          Can this word or phrase be used productively within this lesson?

Selecting what vocabulary to pre-teach

1. Look at what vocabulary the students will need to know to do the task you set, rather than what they probably won’t know in the text.

2. Look at vocabulary which is directly related to the topic of the text, so that it can be used to activate schema.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a scan of three pages from IELTS Foundation 2nd edition Macmillan 2012, with a set of activities around a reading text. Looking at the tasks set on the third page, there are certain words which the students will need to know to carry out these tasks. I would suggest:

current    reluctant    short term effects   essential   reduce   prevent   tend to  encourage   efficient

congestion charge  higher parking charges  public transport  pay per mile

The first set of words could be looked at, as necessary, when the teacher is setting the tasks. Many of them are very typical of IELTS questions and so might well be already known. If not, a matching activity with synonyms might work well with these words, especially with synonyms in the text (most IELTS questions will use a synonym rather than the words in the text itself)

The second set of words however are all linked to the topic, so provide scope to act as a lead in to the text as well as a pre-teaching activity. If you look at the first page of the extract, you can see that these and other related words from the text are given to students to categorise into traffic problems and possible solutions. The students then use the words in a personalised way, to talk about problems in their city before reading the text and comparing with their ideas and opinions.

One of the major problems with pre-teaching vocabulary is dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected words, with no context. Choosing words which relate to the topic of the text is a good way round this issue, and the words can also be used productively.

Ideas for pre-teaching vocabulary

1 Categorising is often a good approach, as it should get the learners to engage with the meaning of the words. If the words aren’t related in terms of meaning you could always get them to categorise into ‘words I know’, ‘words I am not sure about ‘and ‘words I don’t know’. Done in pairs, this should lead to peer teaching and you can monitor and then help with any still causing difficulties.

2 Connecting words: ask students to choose two or more words and phrases  from those you want to pre-teach and write a sentence using them. This will only really work if the words are at least half known though.

3 Predicting: Ask students to make predictions about the text using the words given. Depending on the words and the students this could range from guessing the topic, to guessing the attitude of the writer, to guessing the answers to the questions they are going to answer.

4 Using the context of the text: Pull out some sentences which contain the words you want to pre-teach and put them up on the board with gaps. Get the students to decide which words go in which gaps.

5 If appropriate, matching the vocabulary you want to pre-teach with pictures. Relatively easy these days, pictures are a great way of providing the context which would otherwise be missing.

If you do decide to pre-teach (and there are, as we have seen, arguments against it), make sure that the words and phrases are useful and contextualised and that the time spent pre-teaching is worth it for what the students will get out of the process.

Please see the previous post on selecting authentic reading materials if this is an area which interests you, or the next one on reading tasks.

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

celta compendium cover

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Listen up and take notice:using (semi) authentic listening resources productively

More and more authentic (or semi authentic) listening texts are appearing in published materials. In this session we will look at the reasons for this and at how these materials can be exploited fully to provide not just more realistic listening practice but also a rich resource for developing learners’ own language and speaking skills.

This post is the substance of my presentation at IATEFL Glasgow on 20/3/12, title and abstract above. It can be read without reference to the slides, but the slides can be found on the Glasgow Online website at:

http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2012/sessions/2012-03-20/listen-and-take-notice-using-semi-authentic-listening-resources-productively

What makes a listening text authentic? The difference between a listening text which has been scripted and a piece of authentic dialogue is very obvious once it has been transcribed. In real life speech is full of :

  • Repetition
  • False starts, rephrasing and clarification
  • Hesitation and fillers
  • Simpler sentences or even ‘ ungrammatical’  language
  • Paralinguistic features
  • Backchannelling
  • Ellipsis

If the only practice we give our students is with material that does not have these features, how can we really be preparing them to listen in the real world?

On the other hand, fully authentic material, material which was never intended to be used for learning purposes, may be a little too authentic.

In their book,  Conversation: from description to pedagogy, Scott Thornbury and  Diana Slade make the following observation:

‘Conversations are notoriously hard to capture on tape and even harder to listen to. In the interests of intelligibility…speakers should be recorded talking about a topic without being told exactly what to say in advance.  This way there is more likelihood of capturing naturally occurring features of conversation such as hesitations, fillers, false starts, overlaps etc.’

This is what is known as a semi authentic listening. I recently wrote the new edition of Total English Intermediate. This book, and the other levels in the series, contain at least one and often two of these semi authentic recordings per unit, using a variety of native speakers and non native speakers.

When we listened to the recordings, we discovered that, as well as providing good listening practice, the scripts were also full of examples of natural English use, which learners could learn from.

But how to get them to notice and use this language, or these features? One simple, but very useful framework comes from Thornbury and Slade. They argue that there are three key things we need to be giving our learners:

Exposure, Instruction and Practice

Exposure, or giving opportunities to hear language being used, is the one we tend to be quite good at (though I would argue that we need a lot more. Many coursebooks only have one ‘listening’ per unit.)

It is however, not really enough. Learners will either fail to notice salient points, or take a very very long time to notice them.

So we also need instruction- or occasions when their attention is drawn to these salient points of language.

And, of course, we also need practice. Instinctively, we all know that to learn any practical skills- and that’s what language is- requires practice.

So,  let’s take an example of an unscripted anecdote about a childhood memory.  This appears in Unit 10 of New Total English Intermediate, but you could use any recording which follows the structure of a narrative or anecdote.

The aim is to help students become aware of the discourse structure of an anecdote, following Labov’s Standard Western Narrative:

Abstract Announces that a story is about to start (optional)
Orientation Provides background information
Complication Introduces a problem or a turning point into the main sequence of events
Evaluation Show the speaker’s attitude to the events (may be spread throughout the story)
Resolution What finally happened
Coda Returns listeners to the present (optional)

Obviously the way this is phrased is quite complex, but it can easily be simplified for students. An awareness of this discourse structure is extremely useful because we use it all the time. In job interviews for example, when you’re giving an example of a success you had, when you’re giving an excuse and so on.

So, learners are  exposed to the discourse structure by being asked to put the main events in order as well as any other comprehension tasks. Next they are instructed in the sequence of narratives and finally they tell their own similar anecdote or story, practising the structure.

Alternatively, they could retell the story from the point of view of a different protagonist. This might be useful in an ESOL context, for example, where talking about childhood memories might be inappropriate.

But exposure, instruction, practice isn’t the only way the triangle can work. Alternatively, we could have:

Instruction-Exposure-Practice

 Let’s look at an example which focuses on vocabulary this time. The recording I used featured two short monologues in which people talked about problems in the cities where they lived (Madrid and Edinburgh). A lot of useful vocabulary came out of these recordings, for example;

building work, construction, drilling, exhaust fumes, heatwave, roads being blocked,  horns honking rush hour, terribly cold, tower blocks.

We started by asking the students to categorise these words and phrases into Noise, Types of buildings, Weather, Pollution and Congestion. This was the instruction part of the triangle.

Next the students listened to the monologues and made notes in each category. In this way they were exposed to the language in context. Finally, they carried out a parallel task describing their own town or city.

Thirdly, the triangle could, of course, also be practice-exposure-instruction (and then maybe more practice)

This works well with a recording in which students listen to mote proficient speakers carrying out the same task as themselves, a technique from task-based learning. In my example, learners are asked to use a leaflet to plan a day trip to London.

To follow the practice- exposure-instruction triangle, learners could be asked to first carry out the task themselves. That’s the practice. Then they could listen to the recording, which is of two native speakers and one very proficient non native speaker doing the same task and find out what they decide to do. That’s the exposure.

Finally, they can look at the transcript and underline the language the speakers use to make suggestions and respond to ideas. And that’s the instruction.

While I wouldn’t suggest looking at the transcripts while listening for the first time, they can be a very useful resource. Sound disappears, the transcript captures it so that students can look again and notice the features of natural spoken English.

In this case, what they will find is a good number of useful adjacency pairs for making and responding to suggestions. E.g.

‘Are you guys Ok with paying for that?’ ‘Yes,  I think so’

Incidentally, I noticed a lot of use of the phrase ‘you guys’, despite the fact that all three speakers were female. Probably not something I’d ever have thought of writing in a scripted dialogue.

Transcripts can also be a wonderful resource for developing pronunciation and fluency through automaticity.

I’m using this term as Scott Thornbury uses it, to mean memorising chunks of language that can then be pulled whole out of your store. He talks about creative automaticity. These exercises are not creative in themselves, but will lead to the learners using the language, or having it available to use (as we aren’t mandating it), in a creative way as they carry out the final task themselves.

Firstly, select just a small part of the recording, perhaps some phrases that you expect the learners may want to use themselves in the parallel task, ask the learners to listen again and mark the stressed syllables on the transcript. Ask them what happens to the unstressed syllables- they are weakened or reduced, and use the recording as a model for drilling.

Alternatively, students could read aloud at the same time as listening, trying to make their speed and intonation as close as possible to what they hear. This is a very old fashioned technique, and I wouldn’t advise overdoing it, but actually it can really help with being able to deliver chunks in a confident and fluent manner.

And finally, students can read the dialogue aloud to each other. I would suggest, however, that to make this a bit more fun, as well as more testing, you set the activity up so that they can look at the dialogue, but only when they are NOT speaking or listening. When they speak or listen, they have to look at their partner. This means that they have to memorise the chunk, in a similar way to a running dictation.

While I obviously hope that you’ll take a look at the material in New Total English, all of the ideas could be used with any authentic or semi authentic recording- and there are more and more available.

Useful reading

Conversation: from description to pedagogy- Scott Thornbury and Diana Slade- CUP

Listening Myths: applying second language research to classroom teaching- Steven Brown-Michigan ELT- 2011

How to Teach Listening- JJ Wilson- Pearson

Listening in the Language Classroom- John Field- CUP

Teaching and Researching: Listening- Michael Rost- Longman

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Inane, repetitive and illadvised? Is the ELT coursebook doomed and outmoded, or does it still have something to offer?

Inane-repetitive-and-ill-advised-Is-the-ELT-coursebook-outmoded-or-does-it-still-have-something-to-o-883693503

This is a version of a talk I gave at Swansea University in March 2012. It’s about 25 minutes, plus time to read some of the slides, so get a cup of coffee first!

Some of the questions I try to answer:

  • How is the methodology behind a coursebook decided on?
  • Are we now in an era of ‘textbook defined practice’?
  • Should we be using coursebooks at all, and if so how should we be using them?

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Ideas for taking an ’emergent’ approach to using a coursebook

Most coursebooks have an essentially structural syllabus. Each unit has a handful of language points, what Scott Thornbury refers to as ‘Grammar McNuggets’, and the assumption is that these points will be presented, practised and learnt.

As a coursebook writer, I understand why the syllabus is presented in this way. Most teachers, institutions, parents, students like to have a sense of the way ahead as a series of steps. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this so long as:

–       We remember that what we are teaching is not necessarily what the student is learning.

–       We aim to teach the students rather than the material.

I believe that the material in a coursebook should be seen as a resource, pure and simple. It can and should be used and abused to best meet the needs of the class.

There are certain key elements we need to provide students to give them the opportunity to develop.

Input or language in context (this needs to be motivating and relevant)

Opportunity to ‘notice’ language

Clarification/consciousness raising- whether after noticing or after using (feedback)

Opportunity to use language (this also needs to be motivating and relevant and ideally personalised)

If all these elements aren’t in the coursebook (and they might be), there is no reason why we can’t adapt it to provide them.

‘Noticing’

Many coursebooks do now ask students to notice the language in a text. There are two possible problems with this. Firstly, the text may have been specially written to include these examples, and not in a very natural way. Secondly, if the text is authentic, there may only be a couple of examples.

One way of dealing with this (and it could be used for any text you want to use, not just coursebook texts) is to also use a concordance. For example, there is a text in a coursebook I’m familiar with which has some examples of the different meanings of the word ‘like’ (as a verb and as a preposition). Students are asked to find examples and decide on the meaning. This could then be extended by looking at a concordance (or a simplified version at lower levels) and deciding on the meaning of these examples before returning to the personalised practice in the coursebook. In this example, students write each other questions using both meanings and then answer each other’s questions before going on to write about a place they like and what it’s like.

‘Interlanguage’

Another example from a well known coursebook has a short text. Students are asked to underline all the examples of articles and then find examples of the rules given. An alternative might be to do the text as a dictogloss. The teacher reads the text aloud, at fairly normal speed (not slowly) and the students try to write down what they can. They then work together to recreate the text. Inevitably, if articles are a problem area, they will miss some out or use the wrong ones. They can then compare their version with the original and identify the gap in their own interlanguage.

Alternatively, or even as a follow up task, students could translate the text into their L1 and then, a few days or a week later, try to translate it back. Again, this will highlight any individual difficulties.

Task repetition

Another way to get students to ‘notice the gap’ using a coursebook activity works well with a more traditional kind of activity where students listen to a dialogue which exemplifies a particular language point.

Fans of emergent grammar might avoid these kinds of recordings like the plague, but it can work well in a kind of task based approach. This way, you begin by getting the students to improvise a similar kind of dialogue (obviously this works best if the topic is something they might actually want to talk about). You could even record these conversations if you have the technology. Then you listen to the coursebook dialogue and encourage students to notice any language in there that they could have used. Incidentally, this might not be the language the coursebook writers intended. Finally, the students carry out the dialogue again, perhaps this time with a different partner. If you have recorded the first version, you could record this too, and students could then listen to the recordings at home and note any improvements in the second version.

Task repetition has been shown to have a very positive effect on what Thornbury refers to as ‘grammaring’

I am very far from believing that everyone should be using published materials all the time. However, always starting from scratch can be very labour intensive and, I believe, requires a good deal of experience and understanding. Why not use everything that’s available, just tweaking and adapting as you go?

Incidentally, there are some fabulous ideas, perfectly applicable to published materials, in Grammar and Uncovering Grammar, both by Scott Thornbury.

Here are a few links I have found since writing the post, related to using a coursebook in a more unplugged style.

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Some thoughts on teaching and learning

Taking part in this weeks’ ELTChat (www.eltchat.com) on the future of coursebooks, has got me thinking, once again, about the seeming stand off between those that like and use coursebooks and those that hate them.

At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair ;), I’m sure there must be a third way. I’d like to explore this a bit further in subsequent posts, but to kick off I just wanted to share this set of images:

Imagine, if you will, that this first picture represents a teacher’s lesson plan. The steps could, perhaps represent the ‘target language’, the boulders and plants, other elements of the lesson that he or she intends to weave in.

This second picture could represent the experience of the lesson from one student’s point of view. They get so far up the steps, but not as far as the teacher anticipated, and one of the steps is partly missing. On the other hand, there’s a nice little collection of boulders and plants in there!

For another student, the lesson might be all about the language explicitly taught. They’ve doggedly marched up those steps- and haven’t even noticed that they’re in a garden.

And this student is enjoying the garden, but hasn’t noticed the steps. And maybe he (or she) doesn’t need to if they’re getting something out of that part of the garden…..

 Now, this metaphor has been couched in terms of a more traditional language lesson, where the teacher imagines (and I use that word advisedly) that they can decide in advance what the learners are going to learn. They can’t of course, because there is no way to stop the learners from wandering where they will in the garden, or even curling up in a sunny corner and going to sleep.

But, I would argue, even if a lesson is completely unplanned, organic and student led, it’s still going to be a different experience for every student in the class.

I wonder therefore if the key issue isn’t less about whether we’re using pre-prepared material or not, and more about what we are doing with it, or how we are helping the students to explore the material and take from it what they individually need?

Equally, teachers are all different and work in different ways and need varying levels of support. For some, I believe it will be very helpful for the coursebook to suggest what language could be highlighted in a text and provide clarification and practice. I know I learnt an awful lot about how to exploit texts from using coursebooks. But the coursebook certainly shouldn’t be used as a bible; at least I would hope any material I have written is not used this way. It’s a resource, pure and simple, just like any other resource, such as a newspaper or a recording. The only real difference is that someone has already thought about ways that you could choose to work with the material and, if you find it helpful, you could benefit from their experience and knowledge.

Use it, don’t use it, use part of it, use it in a different way… whatever you do the learners will undoubtedly be learning what they are ready to learn and what they choose to learn.

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