Challenges Facing the Algerian Educational System in Teaching English as a Foreign Language
Samah BENZERROUG, École Normale Supérieure de Bouzaréah, Alger, Algérie
L’objectif principal de l’enseignement des langues étrangères en général et de l’anglais en particulier est de permettre aux apprenants de communiquer tout en développant leurs compétences de l’oral, l’écrit, et la lecture. C’est pour cela que plusieurs méthodes et approches ont été implantées par le système éducatif algérien pour le rendre plus efficace et pour mettre à l’aise les deux principaux agents du processus enseignement/ apprentissage : l’enseignant et l’apprenant. Cette recherche essaie d’explorer les défis de l’enseignement de l’anglais langue étrangère. Elle décrit et analyse les nouveaux curriculums de l’anglais tout en s’appuyant sur les objectifs et les compétences nécessaires pour garantir une communication réussie. Elle met aussi l’accent sur les défis liés au processus de l’enseignement et l’apprentissage des langues ainsi que le rôle de l’enseignant et l’apprenant dans les établissements scolaires du secondaire après la mise en œuvre de l’approche par les compétences. La recherche a pour but d’examiner l’efficacité de cette approche et celle de la formation des enseignants étant les vrais applicateurs de l’approche en classe. Pour ce faire, et afin d’explorer les obstacles et les difficultés dans l’application de cette approche, un questionnaire a été distribué aux enseignants du secondaire. Nous terminons enfin nos propos par une énumération des suggestions pour une meilleure mise en œuvre de l’approche par les compétences et pour un meilleur déroulement du processus enseignement/ apprentissage.
The main objective of teaching foreign languages in general and English in particular is to enable communication in all its forms by developing learners’ competencies and skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. For this reason, many methods and approaches have been adopted by the Algerian Educational System to look for effectiveness, and to put at ease the two main poles engaged in the teaching and learning process: the teacher and the learner. This paper presents an account of the challenges facing EFL with reference to the country’s current educational profile. It delineates the EFL curriculum by focusing on its objectives and the skills necessary for carrying out successful communication. It also highlights a set of challenges linked to the teaching and learning process and the roles of both teachers and learners in the Algerian secondary schools especially after the implementation of the Competency-Based Approach (CBA).The study aims at examining the effectiveness of this approach and teachers’ training. It aims also at getting feedback from EFL teachers since they are the real applicators of CBA in the classroom. Therefore, a questionnaire was administered to EFL teachers in the secondary education system to investigate the inadequacies and the difficulties they are facing. Finally, the paper will conclude with some pedagogical recommendations for better implementing the Competency-Based Approach and for creating an appropriate environment for the teaching/learning process.
The English language has imposed itself as a major means of access to anything that happens around the world, and in every field. Algeria, just like the other countries around the world, has had to face this situation and to bring it into its educational system. Our country considers English (together with other foreign languages) as a means for knowledge acquisition and scientific progress, and as an opening to the people and culture that this foreign language represents (Allwright & Bailey, 1991, p. 30).There is no doubt that language helps people to interact and promotes mutual understanding, tolerance and respect for the cultural identity and values of others (Lyons, 1981, p. 230). It also plays a determinant role in educating people (The World Book Encyclopaedia, 1983, p. 143). That is why the teaching of English is now part of the curriculum in all schools throughout the country.
The teaching of English as a second foreign language after French has been defined at the official level within the general aims of the teaching of foreign languages in the Algerian educational system. It aims at achieving two main objectives: socio-cultural objectives and educational objectives which stimulate communication in its various forms and gets people informed about technical and scientific progress. This requires the development of basic language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
The teaching and learning of English is essentially based on interaction and communication. Since communication derives from interaction (Hudson, 1980, p. 81), it follows that learning a language necessitates acquiring knowledge and skills which enable learners to interact and communicate by providing them with a “natural context for language use” (Larsen Freeman, 2000, p. 144). Therefore, interaction and communication are closely related to characteristics of language. Language is “the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols” (Hall, 1968). However, a successful and efficient interaction in the classroom requires effective teaching strategies. Therefore, the selection of appropriate teaching methods and techniques in the process of teaching becomes essential as they are the means whereby teaching and learning occur. The pioneers of each pedagogical innovation claim to be more comprehensive to learners’ abilities and needs. Yet, as Pica (2000, p. 3) argues, “no single method could possibly meet all of the learners’ needs”.
During the last decades, the Algerian educational system in general and the teaching of the English language in particular has witnessed a kind of renewal and vitality since they underwent a serious crisis that had negative consequences on the future of several generations of pupils. In this context, the President of the Republic affirmed
The educational system generated a significant decrease in the general level of teaching, a strong school failure due mainly to the bad co-operation between the various levels of the educational system (Institut National de la Recherche en Éducation, 2004, p. 1).
He also declared in his speech to the nation May 29, 1999:
It’s time to adopt a reform project for our educational system and work together to define and consolidate our school for the sake of our children who then will be able to conquer their future. (L’école de Demain, 2000, p. 3).
One can deduce from these declarations that the Algerian school system has shown its limits. Indeed, pupils’ level kept decreasing from one year to another, and this was reflected in the poor results of examinations. As a consequence, the adoption of a new and more fruitful and beneficial teaching method was recommended to improve the teaching of English in our schools and our education in general and to provide each citizen with the right and the opportunity to learn without limitations except those related to intrinsic aptitudes (Adel, 2004, p. 4).
3. Research questions
It is from this point of view that I try to make things clearer through this paper on the new Algerian English language secondary education curriculum, which was designed by a team appointed by the Ministry of National Education to meet the principles of the Competency-Based Approach (CBA). The latter is considered as being a major change for our educational system as far as the curriculum, the teacher’s and the pupil’s roles and the teaching methodology are concerned.
In the light of this, I try to check whether the renewal of the education system actually leads to the improvement of pupils’ results and their motivation, and to examine teachers’ aptitude and predisposition to implement CBA in their classes. So, it was worthy to ask these crucial questions:
- Is CBA used efficiently?
- Are Algerian teachers well trained and informed about how to teach using its principles and procedures?
- Can the pedagogical tools and materials, which are available in our schools, facilitate the implementation of CBA?
The answer to these questions is mainly based on a careful analysis of official documents: Secondary School English curricula and the textbooks. And it is also based on a careful analysis of the results in the field investigation carried out in the Algerian Secondary School; a careful analysis of the data gathered from the answers to a questionnaire addressed to 245 Algerian secondary school English teachers in Algiers so as to gauge their reactions to this reform in general and CBA in particular.
4. Theoritical framework
Before the 1980s, the Structuralist Behaviourist Approach (also called Aural-Oral Approach) was implemented for the teaching of English in the Algerian schools. The teaching of English had a primarily linguistic objectives and targeted the acquisition of a knowledge about the language rather than language skill itself. The major aims were to develop language habits in the learners. The teacher had therefore to present simple sentences and structures that the learners should practise and imitate. The teaching of English was based on the repetition of grammatically correct phrases and sentences through drilling.
However, the Aural-Oral Approach, which is also named Content-Based Approach, presents major drawbacks namely mechanical and non-creative learning, demotivation and passivity of learners. It is a traditional and teacher-centred approach. After almost a decade of applying this approach, the Ministry of National Education officially recognized its failure. Its weakness and limits appeared in the final results in terms of language acquisition and the proficiency of learners. If the learners could master and manipulate some language forms and structural items, they were unable to use them spontaneously in real situations. In other words, they were not able to use the language for communication “What is consciously learned is not necessarily incorporated into spontaneous language production” (Willis &Willis, 2001, p. 173).
Such criticism directed against the Aural-Oral Approach appeared in the eighties and led to the adoption of a new approach; the aim of which was to help learners acquire and use the language because students learn language more if they are thinking about a non-linguistic problem than if they are focusing on specific forms (Harmer, 2001, p. 86).
The Objective–Based Approach (OBA) was implemented after 1984 and was conceived according to the final objectives of each educational level in order to prepare learners for higher education with more opportunities of success. The teaching of English should have a formative aim to develop the learners’ intellectual skills such as analysing, synthesising and anticipating to be naturally processed in sharing information and experiences, carrying out instructions, solving problems or asking for clarifications through speaking or writing (Bowen, 2002, p. 7).
OBA defines the task to be learned and the implemented capacities that control it. That is to say, it defines the objectives of each sequence of teaching, the methods and the tools to be used to reach those objectives. However, it is the argument here that in the field these objectives raise problems. It is then suggested that the failure of OBA is mainly due to the vague definition of objectives, The English language teaching objectives as set out in the previous Algerian Educational System were not clearly stated in terms of standards of achievements. The officially set objectives were too general and not clearly defined; which made the task of the teacher difficult. This was mainly in terms of implementation and evaluation. Such unrealistic and ambitious goals “can be a burden for the learners, in terms of what they need or are likely to achieve within a certain time.” (Scrivener, 1998, p. 54). The teacher faced difficulties in the interpretation of the objectives, and could thus not evaluate the achievement of such objectives throughout the teaching-learning process since they had been set in too general and unclear terms.
The failure of the previous approaches and methods, which used to consider the teacher as being the keeper and the giver of the knowledge already presented in textbooks and the learners as being the receivers of information since they are not involved in the learning process, prompted the Ministry of National Education to undertake a process of innovation concerning teaching methods and techniques and design a new curriculum by adopting a reform project of the whole educational policy of the country and implementing a new teaching approach, the Competency-Based Approach.
The reform project was issued on September 9th, 2003 and its major objective is to form learners and citizens able to face the universal evolution without neglecting the principles and values of our society. The reform is also related to the desire to know more about science, universal culture, foreign languages and international cooperation. At the same time, it aims at promoting the constituents of our national identity.
It is worth mentioning that, before the reform, the Algerian school underwent various forms of evolution, but despite all the efforts which were made to improve the educational system, many insufficiencies and drawbacks were recorded such as:
- lack or absence of cooperation and teamwork within the educational body,
- teachers, directors and inspectors’ training was insufficient and ineffective,
- inadequate assessment system and pupils’ failure in official examinations,
- lack of teaching aids and materials, and lack of entertainment for the pupils because of insufficient time allowance and overcrowded classes,
- inappropriate school orientation as well as professional orientation of learners (Projet d’établissement, 2005, p. 4).
The analysis of the school failure rate was the main cause of the adoption of a reform project and the improvement of the quality of teaching and its relevance to meet the needs of today’s Algerian society (Roegiers, 2006, p. 12-13), It was realized that what is learnt by the pupils in one year will be forgotten a few years later. The pupils find themselves in a situation where they lose the acquired knowledge and cannot follow the pace of the curriculum. This failure is mainly due to the pedagogical approach adopted previously, in fact, parceled out knowledge and distributed into small pieces of information. So, pupils did not stop learning new things and did not really realize their usefulness. They were often told “Do what we tell you to do”. Learning by competencies is suggested to reinforce the learning process and its durability. Once pupils grasp what is taught, they are placed in similar situations so as to transfer the acquired knowledge.
The reform of the Algerian school becomes then, a necessity to reorganize the educational system and improve teaching methodology and teachers’ training. As far as the teaching of foreign languages is concerned, new measures have been taken:
- Ensuring the teaching of two foreign languages (French and English ) in fundamental teaching by using the necessary materials.
- Teaching English as the second foreign language 3 hours weekly from the 1st year of Middle School instead of the 2nd year in the previous educational system.
- Introducing and developing a third foreign language for literary streams in secondary education.
- Introducing the new information and communication technologies into the educational system in order to facilitate access to information and technical and scientific civilization.
Being the second foreign language after French, which is the first foreign language to be taught (FFL1), the teaching of English covers seven years of studies (our years at Middle School level and three years at Secondary School level). It favours the development of the following competencies:
- Interact orally in English
- Interpret oral and written messages in English
- Produce oral and written messages in English (Teacher’s Book Getting Through, 2006, p. 4).
The reform aims at developing communicative, linguistic, cultural and methodological competencies which would help the learners to acquire the necessary skills to engage in a relationship with their environment and help them communicate orally and in writing taking into consideration their future needs and those of the society in which they live, “Language proficiency is not a unidimensional construct, but a multifaceted modality consisting of various levels” (Shuman, 1997, p. 10).
The Approach is principally concerned with the development of the learner as a responsible, self-reliant and open-minded individual and advocates one of the most important requirements of learning, which stimulates communication in the target language (Careless, 2004, p. 642), CBA was applied to all the educational levels in order to:
- promote self-confidence and the development of the learner’s personality;
- lead all the pupils to grasp knowledge and to acquire competencies which render them apt to learn all their life and to take a place in economic, social and cultural life;
- prepare all the pupils to be responsible citizens, capable of contributing to the development of a democratic society and open to other cultures;
- ensure equal chances of social emancipation to all the pupils.
The Competency-Based curriculum aims at developing Learner Competencies which include communication skills (reading, writing, understanding, interpreting, speaking, interacting, negotiating, collaborating), and research skills (collecting, selecting, summarizing information, using technological tools, writing a project, etc. (Bensemmane, 2005, p. 136-137).
The goals of teaching English in Algeria comply with the teaching goals of the other subjects and emphasise correlation with other school subjects, communicative competence, fluency and accuracy and self-learning (Programme d’Anglais de Deuxième Année Secondaire, 2006, p. 90). The general aim of the new syllabus is to provide learners with the language necessary to communicate efficiently in a normal social and/or working situation both orally and in writing, At the same time, it aims at enabling those who go on to further studies to use a foreign language as a means to acquire extra information about their field of study. Those who join the job market can use foreign language to exploit by themselves documents, leaflets, notices related to their jobs, The ultimate objective is to make learners self-sufficient in exploring and exploiting materials that are linked to their field of study by providing them with basic linguistic tools.
Learners are therefore, encouraged to learn and practise a foreign language through communicative activities, which include:
- a desire to communicate: in a communicative activity there must be a reason to communicate;
- a communicative purpose: the ability to figure out the speaker’s intention is also part of the learner’s communicative competence (Larsen Freeman, 2000, p. 125-127);
- a focus on language content not language forms: students learn language more if they are thinking about a non-linguistic problem than if they are focussing on specific forms (Harmer, 2001, p. 86);
- a variety of language is used: in normal communication, we do not repeatedly use the same language forms;
- less teacher control and intervention: in real life the teacher is not usually beside the learners to “help” or “correct” their English.
We notice that before the reform there was no real possibility of real communication in the English classroom, Learners had to “pretend” that they needed to communicate in English. However, CBA has largely reduced artificiality in classroom situations. Teacher intervention can easily be reduced, more authentic materials are used, a wider variety of language use is encouraged, and more natural communicative purposes are created.
Moreover, teachers is more autonomous and free to plan their lessons and select the projects themes as well as time allowance for their accomplishment. They are free to choose the appropriate teaching supports and materials, the type of assessment according to their pupils’ needs and features without neglecting the objectives of the official curriculum. This autonomy enables him to better perform his task and improve the pupils’ results.
Learners thus become an important partner in the teaching and learning process. They are no longer considered as a passive individual who do nothing except receiving knowledge. On the contrary, they play an active role in the learning process and participate in the acquisition and construction of knowledge and skills, too. Consequently, they will be able to act, learn how to learn, learn at their own pace and prepare their projects on their own, he knew English curriculum and textbooks undoubtedly contribute to the liberation of both teachers and learners from all the obstacles that prevented them from developing knowledge, skills and different competencies during the last two decades.
To answer the research questions, I used a quantitative and qualitative research method based on the analysis of the secondary school English curricula and textbooks and survey analysis.
5.1. Analysis of the Secondary School English Curricula and Textbooks
Getting Through, At the Crossroads and New Prospects are the English textbooks designed for students in their first, second and third year of Secondary Education in 2005, 2006 and 2007, respectively. They implement, as stated in the Teacher’s book, “the National Curriculum for English issued by the Ministry of National Education in December 2005” (Teacher’s Book Getting Through, 2006, p. 3). It is a translation of the curriculum in terms of objectives, methodology, content and evaluation, They follow the guiding principles which frame the curricula and which take account of the social and educational background of our learners, as well as the cultural values of Algeria. They also rely on CBA which is both learner-centred and project oriented.
The textbooks can make, in fact, the syllabus more manageable because of their pedagogical importance. On one hand, they help the learners memorize knowledge, information and skills and on the other hand, they testify the accomplishment of tasks and lessons in class, they can also serve as an effective resource for self-directive learning and presenting the material.
A major aim of these textbooks is to make both the teacher and the learner come to a fruitful interaction. This means that the appropriate attitude should be taken by the instructors to make learners a responsible party to the successful completion of their studies. Indeed, the textbooks are the material representation of that philosophy. They offer activities likely to stimulate and develop individual competencies in a vital stage when knowledge and skills are reinforced, following the four-year course received at the Middle School. As a textbook design is said to be influenced by an adopted approach (White 1991,p. 3), the same principles of CBA to be found in the first four textbooks of Middle School have been applied in these textbooks, The three competencies described in the National Curricula are being developed at all stages of these books, through various tasks and activities.
Furthermore, secondary education is the stage when students are “specialising” in different streams (science, maths, technology, etc.). This is taken into consideration, through teaching units in the courses which are more particularly addressed to “science and technology” streams, or “arts and foreign languages” streams.
The textbooks are organised in didactic units, each unit deals with a specific topic suggested by the curricula designers. Unit contents are presented at the beginning of the textbook in the Book Map, which is provided in a linear form. As indicated previously, in each unit the student will have many opportunities to develop the three competencies of interaction, interpretation and production, as a variety of tasks and activities are designed to lead and contribute gradually to the building of the project.
Each unit of the textbook focuses upon a broad topic selected for its general interest and for the functional language it generates. Learners explore the issues in relation to skills, functions, related strategies and language forms that fit in with the topic of each unit. Naturally, the emphasis in all units falls on skills since the statement of outcomes in the syllabus is formulated in terms of what the learners can do with the language. But before approaching each unit, the learner will consider a section which introduces the new vocabulary that will be used, It also aims to brainstorm students and get them to tell what they know about a specific topic. This is an important part in which the learners contribute their own knowledge and connects it with that contained in the text.
As far as the degrading of content is concerned, learners can assimilate some language items before others because of their degree of simplicity. In these textbooks, we notice that the assigned tasks become relatively more complex and more challenging to the students as each unit develops, i.e. from oral to written language, and from guided language practice to free communicative use.
They are action-oriented in the sense that the development of skills holds a central position in it. The concept of skill is regarded as being synonymous with knowhow and a translation of the French concept savoir-faire used in the syllabus. Two types of skills are distinguished in the textbook. On the one hand, we have the primary skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), and on the other hand the social skills which need the mobilization of the former for the learner to accomplish everyday life concrete actions such as reading a newspaper article, reading and interpreting a map, writing business and personal letters.
CBA implies, among other things, a process of apprenticeship involving a transfer of skills from a coach / teacher to the trainee/ learner. Of course, a transfer of skills cannot take place instantly and as a whole block. These skills appear in the syllabus as fragmented into verbalised operations keyed to a certain number of language functions (formulated in terms of specific objectives in the syllabus) and language forms. However, the implementation of the new approach divided educators into two categories: advocates and opponents. Its advocates affirm that it is a revolution for teaching that will improve our pupils’ level and particularly the results of the Baccalaureate Examination. As for the opponents, they think that CBA is too difficult to apply in our schools, especially because we do not have the means to do it.
Whatever the experience the teachers had in the field of education, they have found themselves in an ambiguous situation facing difficulties to apply the new methodology. When investigating the new approach and programs and trying to get feedback from teachers who are the real applicators of the new teaching approach, we have felt this destabilization that we estimate as a natural reaction when innovation takes place. Teachers wonder continuously about the manner of teaching on the basis of CBA.
5.2. Survey Analysis
The survey we conducted with the teachers was meant to answer the main questions asked before. The questionnaire (see appendix 1) was administered to 245 EFL teachers in 42 secondary schools in the Algiers area in three different districts (Centre, East, West) as shown in the table below (Fig. 1).
Figure 1 - Number of Informants
The data collected show that (72,65 %) of the teachers find it easy to implement CBA. This is due to their good pre-service training and their attendance at pedagogical seminars. Moreover, they indicate that 44,48% of teachers find that CBA facilitates their teaching task and frequently enables them to achieve the target objectives. The majority of respondents (66,93 %) think that the pupils’ level has increased since the reform, which is due mainly to the new teaching approach as well as the new assessment procedure.
However, we could notice that nearly two-thirds of the teachers (62.85 %) affirm that the new assessment procedure needs to be discussed. We consider that these teachers find many difficulties in assimilating CBA because of lack of training and insufficient materials.
The research results proved also that most of the teachers (71.02 %) are incapable of teaching by CBA because they face many difficulties related to their insufficient training, 64.89 % of teachers express their dissatisfaction about their training which does not enable them to implement CBA. Moreover, 37.95 % say that they have not benefited from any training on the new approach.
The data reveal that materials are necessary in teaching and implementing CBA: we can say that they are insufficient and unavailable in our schools. Indeed, 53.06 % of teachers declare that the pedagogical means are not available in their schools, However, 46.93 % affirm that although teaching aids and materials are available in their schools, they are not sufficient.
As far as teachers’ training in the use of pedagogical tools is concerned, the majority of teachers (75.10 %) say that they have not been trained in the use of materials, Even those who received training (24.89 %) claim that it was just theoretical, i.e. simple explanations of concepts related to CBA.
6. Results and discussion
Analysis of the curriculum reveals that there is variety in themes, texts and activities taking into account the development of primary skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), in addition to the secondary skills (word building, sentence building, etc.). Learners are also provided with various learning modes (individual, pair, group and whole class work) which lead them to accomplishment of the project.
However, the analysis of the questionnaire which was administered to EFL teachers in various secondary schools in Algiers shows that there are difficulties in implementing the Competency-Based Approach: insufficiency of time allowance, overcrowded classes, lack of teachers’ training and lack of teaching aids and technological tools in schools. As for assessment, teachers need more than what the official documents provide as assessment procedure is not clear enough and is still debatable.
Therefore, we can say that tools and materials that could facilitate the teachers’ task are insufficient and sometimes nonexistent in some schools. Moreover, we should point out that CBA being a new pedagogy requires a lot of technological and pedagogical tools and materials, in addition to a perfect mastery of the new of information and communication technologies.
The study was able to determine that the teachers who were surveyed are willing to adapt to the changes brought by the educational system in general and CBA in particular. The majority of them appreciate the implementation of CBA in their teaching practices since it has completely modified their aptitudes as well as that of learners who become rather autonomous in their learning and able to read fluently and correctly through interaction and exchange of ideas in English and in relation to their needs and interests. However, almost all of respondents state that CBA has to be perfected in the following years because of the difficulties they face in implementing it in their teaching, which is due to their insufficient training. Moreover, the results obtained reveal that the majority of teachers emphasize the importance of pedagogical and technological means since they are not available in their schools and their absence can have a negative impact on the teaching and learning process.
According to the research findings, we can say that the approach introduced recently in our Educational System in general and the Secondary Education in particular can be implemented progressively and successfully as a solution to the problems stated previously, but only if some conditions are met because there are some inadequacies in its implementation and therefore it needs some remedial changes so as to achieve the target objectives in the Algerian school.
To conclude, we can say that the analysis and evaluation of SE English curricula and textbooks reveal to what extent CBA can be efficient in improving the quality of the teaching and the learning process, but teachers find difficulties in implementing it in their classes which is mainly due to the inadequate classroom environment in Algeria. For helping them adjust their teaching on the basis of CBA principles, possible suggestions are given in the hope that they may positively contribute to the development of EFL teaching methodology and make it easier for the teachers of English language to apply the new approach and use the available teaching aids and tools and most importantly the means of direct communication and information such as the computer and the web which are important in promoting motivation and language acquisition.
So, in order to better implement the Competency Based Approach and create an appropriate environment for the teaching/learning process, we suggest the following:
- improve teachers’ pre-service training;
- ensure continuous training and inform the teachers about any other changes in the curriculum;
- ensure occasional in-service training workshops for the teachers who are ready to devote some of their free time to learn more about the evolution of their subject as well as CBA;
- organize seminars that would help teachers pinpoint their shortcomings and offer them plenty of opportunities to meet other teachers and exchange personal experiences about the application of CBA in their classes;
- train teachers, especially those who exceed 20 years of service, and help them get a clearer picture of the new curriculum and its implementation and the exploitation of the textbook;
- take into consideration teachers’ opinions and suggestions when designing a curriculum or stating teaching objectives;
- provide schools with the necessary materials and the new information and communication technologies so that the teachers can get through the new approach easily;
- reduce the number of pupils per class because class size (overcrowded classes) is an impediment to implementing CBA properly.
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