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UTSA researcher receives $376k to expand her work on literacy development in bilingual children

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UTSA associate professor Becky Huang researches the development of language and literacy among school-age bilingual/dual language learners (DLLs) and how it affects their reading skills and success in the classroom. To expand on her work, Huang was awarded a three-year, $376,000 grant for a new project examining bilingual/DLLs in San Antonio.

The project is being supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) Program, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

The researcher, based in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies in the UTSA College of Education and Human Development (COEHD), will begin working with Spanish-English bilingual/DLLs in first and third grade this May. She will assess the students’ oral language proficiencies in English and Spanish and how their oral language predicts their English reading outcomes.

The number of school-age bilingual/DLLs has increased exponentially in recent years. According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, bilingual/DLLs make up 49 percent of the young child population (ages 0 to 8) in Texas. Since 2000, Texas has experience a 31 percent growth in its young bilingual/DLL population, as compared to a 24 percent increase nationally.

Huang has studied bilingual/DLLs for years and is eager to work with students in the San Antonio region. In the past, Huang has studied Mandarin-English bilingual/DLLs in California and Massachusetts as well as in her hometown of Taipei, Taiwan.

“Bilingual/Dual language learners are a large population in San Antonio. As a professor at UTSA, an urban serving university, I’m hoping this research will help us understand the predictors of bilingual/DLLs’ language and reading outcomes, and the results can inform instruction and assessment for bilingual/DLL students,” explained Huang, the grant’s principal investigator (PI).

During individualized sessions in her laboratory on campus, Huang and her research team will work with each child on language and reading tasks. She intends to make the sessions fun for the children. Each child participant will also receive a certificate of completion and a gift card at the end of the session.

To complete this project, Huang plans to see 100 students per year, for a total of 300 students, over the course of three years. In addition to the local participants she will be working with on UTSA campus, the UTSA researcher will visit elementary schools in local school districts to work with dual language elementary students on their school campus.

“I’m focusing on reading outcomes because reading is very important for success in school. If a child can’t read well, it can negatively impact their success in other subjects,” explained Huang.

Huang’s mentors on this project include Nicole Wicha, an associate professor of biology in the UTSA College of Sciences who studies the neurobiology of bilingualism, and Lisa Bedore, chair and a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disordersat Temple University, who studies bilingual language development and assessment.

A doctoral student in the UTSA Culture, Literacy and Language Ph.D. program and research assistants will help Huang with the project. The project will also be supported by the UTSA Center for the Inquiry of Transformative Literacies.

In 2017, Huang completed a pilot study with support from a seed grant from the UTSA Achieving Literacy Initiative, a one-time targeted seed funding program sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise, the College of Education and Human Development, and the Office of the President. The data collected from the pilot study helped secure the NIH award.

In that study, she learned that English language proficiency was a significant predictor of bilingual/DLLs’ English reading development. What remains unknown is the role of their native language proficiency, in this case Spanish language skills, in their English reading outcomes. This NIH-funded project will address this question and examine the contributions of both of their languages to reading.

Huang leads an interdisciplinary research program that spans across applied linguistics, psychology, and education. She examines the factors that influence language and literacy development among bilingual/DLLs as well as the validity and fairness of assessments for this population. Huang is a former middle school teacher, and has taught English as a Second/Foreign Language to various bilingual/DLL age groups.

Photo courtesy of University Communications

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UTSA College of Education and Human Development

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