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Expert warns of vocab decline as Japanese students score lower in reading skills

Japanese students' average reading comprehension score in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was 22 points lower than in the previous test in 2012. Japan now stands in eighth place in reading comprehension based on PISA, down from fourth in the previous assessment.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology says that the switch in the latest assessment to a computer testing format may have been one reason for the decline, but it does not appear that students had trouble with computer operation in other subjects.

Noriko Arai, a research scientist at the National Institute of Informatics, also made reference to the new format. But at the same time, she warns that Japanese students' vocabularies may be declining.

"It may have been the case that they had trouble reading passages spanning several pages with the screens changing and so on, but other countries answer the questions under the same conditions, and there didn't seem to be a problem in other fields," Arai said. "If you look at past results, it's probably natural to understand that Japan ranks eighth in reading comprehension ability."

Arai has been developing a robot dubbed "Torobo-kun" that tries out the entrance exam for the University of Tokyo with the aid of artificial intelligence. During the development stage, she came to have questions about children's reading comprehension ability, and has conducted tests on junior high and high school students, asking them to read short passages and answer multiple-choice questions. There are cases, however, in which they misread the subject of simple passages or cannot correctly understand particles.

"There are many children who can't understand the passages in textbooks. It's a critical situation," she says.

A reason for this, Arai suggests, is a lack of vocabulary. With fewer people in households, conversation between adults has declined, and children have become more aliterate, meaning fewer chances for them to read long passages, she says.

"Rather than just reading works of literature in Japanese class, they need the process of comprehending logical passages accompanied by graphs and charts. Perhaps we have arrived at a stage in which it is necessary to review subject content."

Masanobu Kasai, a specially appointed professor in the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University who used to teach at a junior high school, points to problems in school education.

"The assumption regarding study that things which are taught are to be memorized hinders advancement in reading comprehension ability. It is still common for schools to employ the study methods and classes that are strictly about writing in answers to drill questions as measures to boost performance in academic assessments," he says, adding, "It is the role of a teacher to have students read texts as if they are exchanging words with the writer while having them consider their meaning and significance.

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