Posted on October 14, 2021 by Christopher Reichert


Associate professor Becky Huang in the Bicultural Bilingual Studies Department (BBL), has received an additional grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on bilingual and dual language learning (DLL) elementary students. This award serves as a supplemental to Huang’s  original 2019 grant , currently in its third and final year, which has enabled her to research language development in bilingual/DLL students.  

“The project is to look at how dual language learners, especially in dual language immersion programs, develop their two languages: their home language and the English language, which is the dominant societal language,” Huang said. “The second question is how does their English oral language and Spanish oral language contribute to English reading.”  

So far, the team has already produced one paper based on the data from their first year of research, which they expect to be published imminently. In this paper, Huang explains that the children’s oral language proficiency in both English and Spanish contributed to success in English reading.  

“Those who have stronger Spanish oral language also did better in reading in English,” she said. “So there’s that positive transfer, that cross-linguistic transfer, not just between the two languages but also between the oral language and reading skills.”  

While this positive transfer was no surprise, Huang and her team had expected the children’s English reading to be affected both by their mastery of Spanish vocabulary and the complexity of their Spanish sentence structure, but this wasn’t the case. In fact, the researchers discovered that, of the two, only the Spanish sentence structure appeared to have an impact on their English reading.   

“The more complex their Spanish sentence production is, the better their English reading outcome is,” Huang said.

“The more complex their Spanish sentence production is, the better their English reading outcome is,” Huang said.   

She speculates that at this point in the children's linguistic development, the simpler sentence structures are similar enough between Spanish and English to facilitate this transfer of knowledge. In addition to Spanish sentence structure, the researchers found that grade level and a rich English vocabulary also predicted English reading ability.   

Huang says these findings contradict the myth that young children cannot learn two languages simultaneously and that, since English is the dominant language in society and school, English should be their focus.  

“That comes at the sacrifice of their home language,” she said, “and the loss of home language could have very undesirable outcomes and consequences, like a loss of connection with their parents, grandparents, or family, and also loss of job opportunities in the future.”  

This is the message she wants to convey, and she has the evidence to support making that recommendation to families and to schools.   


But the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and Huang’s second year of the project served to hamper her data collection and expand her research questions. As schools throughout the area – including UTSA – halted in-person learning, Huang found it increasingly challenging to not only access the schoolchildren she needed for her research, but to recruit, train, and meet with her research assistants. All of these factors made 2020 a challenging year for Huang and many of her colleagues in child development research, some of whom had to put their projects on hold for the year.  

“I’m lucky I was able to keep the project going, but it was very challenging and I didn’t reach the data collection goal last year,” Huang said.  

But despite the setbacks, her experiences during the pandemic ultimately inspired her to expand her research aims. During the interviews she was able to complete remotely, Huang found that parents, teachers, and even students were spontaneously commenting on the effects the pandemic was having on the students’ educations.   

“We were able to witness first-hand, hear first-hand the really negative consequences or impacts of the pandemic,” she said.  

And so when the NIH called for proposals for pandemic-related research, Huang responded.

“We have this opportunity to know what the pandemic’s effects are on child development.”

“We have this opportunity to know what the pandemic’s effects are on child development,” she said. “And the most important thing is we want to know so we can create interventions. You can’t provide intervention if you don’t know what the effects are.”  

This year, Huang plans to contact the first- and third-grade students she studied in 2019 who are now in third and fifth grade. She hopes to compare their standardized testing results with the typical scores for their grade level, which should allow her to determine how the pandemic impacted the growth of their language and reading skills. Additionally, Huang and her team will design a series of open-ended questions to formally capture the information that they received unprompted last year.  

As she goes forward into the third and final year of her project, Huang is hopeful she will be able to collect not only the additional data needed for her project’s extension grant, but also catch up from last year and still be able to present all of her findings to the schools, families, and academic communities on time.  

“We have a plan to collect data, and we’ve already mapped out the timeline for when we’re going to go to each school to collect data, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” she said.  

Having successfully received consent from a new district and several schools, Huang hopes COVID doesn’t throw her anymore curveballs. If, for example, schools are forced to close again, Huang and her team would transition back to remote data collection. Should this happen, she says, the buy-in and support of parents will be the biggest determiner of her success. She says the response from the 2019 cohort of students and parents has been positive so far, and she hopes as many students as possible will participate again. No matter what happens with the pandemic this fall, Huang and her team will continue to place the welfare of the children she’s studying above all else.  

“I want what’s best for the children,” she said. “For my research, it’s probably easier if schools remain open, easier for data collection. But if it’s not safe for the schools to be open, then whatever we need to do to ensure everyone’s safety, we will do.”  

For more information on Huang and her research, visit


-Christopher Reichert 

— Christopher Reichert