In education, as in any human endeavor, change is constant. One of the changes in South Carolina and Aiken County in recent years is the expansion of multilingual learners.

In Aiken County Public Schools, the number of multilingual learners has grown from 126 in 1999, or 0.5 percent of the student population, to 1,121 in 2010, or 4.6 percent of the student population.

These numbers mirror growth in South Carolina as a whole. The U.S. Census and the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia indicate that growth in immigration to South Carolina has had overall benefits to the state’s economy.

As just one example, immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $4.6 billion dollars in receipts and employed more than 29,000 people.

Serving multilingual learners – students who are learning English and speak other languages – is both a challenge and opportunity for schools across the country.

Research indicates that being multilingual is an asset. Multilingual individuals are able to solve complex problems more quickly, and multilingualism protects against Alzheimer’s disease in adults. This raises the question as to how schools can serve multilingual learners, helping students acquire English at the same time as retaining the benefits of multilingualism. Although much is still unknown, research from the last 40 years sheds some light as to how to educate multilingual learners. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Lau vs. Nichols that public schools serving substantial numbers of multilingual learners must offer special language instruction to help those students succeed. In the years since then, educators have been working to interpret what kind of instruction is most useful for multilingual learners.

There are many models that have been used by school districts to serve multilingual learners, from full bilingual instruction to weekly support in English from an English as a Second Language teacher. In some cases, bilingual instruction is offered to both native English speakers and non-native English speakers, so that all students in a school become multilingual. The most comprehensive research study of such programs, evaluated from 1985-2000, indicated that non-native English speakers who were instructed in both their home language and English had higher test scores and graduation rates than students who attended English mainstream programs.

Beyond this work, a literature review by Claude Goldenberg of Stanford summarizes three main findings from multiple longitudinal research studies: first, teaching students to read in their first language promotes higher levels of reading achievement in English; second, good instruction and curriculum in general is also beneficial for English learners; third, when instructing English learners in English, teachers must modify instruction to take into account students’ language limitations.

The United States has a rich and politicized history of integrating immigrant students in classrooms, which I will explore in further columns. Young multilingual learners in South Carolina are a resource full of potential. It is up to schools, citizens and parents to work together to harness this power for the benefit of our society as a whole.

Laura Quaynor is assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the School of Education at the University of South Carolina Aiken.