A GENERATION ago, few school districts gave much attention to educating children with limited or no knowledge of English. There had been no substantial immigration from foreign-language nations since the 1920s, and in the few areas of the country (mostly in the Southwest) with many non-English speakers, the procedure all too often was to conduct classes in English and let children, whose primary language was Spanish, sink or swim. By the early 1970s, it was widely recognized that this was neither fair nor effective. Moreover, the sudden and almost entirely unanticipated rise in immigration, mostly from Latin America, East Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, meant that for the first time in half a century a substantial number of pupils all over the country would enter the public schools without knowing English.

How are they to be educated? The federal government more than a decade ago began funding what it called bilingual education -- teaching the child in his original language while also, at least theoretically, teaching him English. The Carter department of education, in administering federal bilingual aid and interpreting the Delphic pronouncements of the courts, favored this form of bilingual education. Not surprisingly a potent lobby, including foreign-language teachers, grew up to support it. Many school districts wanted to take different approaches, some because they couldn't find teachers proficient in Lao or Hmong, others because they believed the children were being held back from learning English as quickly as they could; but they found it difficult to do so.

The Reagan administration's department of education has played a more constructive role by not insisting on one rigid approach and by giving school districts more leeway. Last week, the advisory council headed by Sauk Village, Ill., superintendent Anthony Torres reported that research doesn't establish conclusively the superiority of any one method of instruction. The council stressed the goal that children "become proficient in the use of English so that they may benefit from their educational experience." In practice that means more funding for English as a second language (ESL) and other approaches in the many situations where local officials decide they're appropriate.

Here, as in other areas, federal policy was premised on the often correct assumption that local authorities could not be trusted to do the right thing and had to be closely regulated. But on this issue, as on other education matters, the local authorities, prodded by parents and voters, have been making sensible changes. The administration is acting wisely in encouraging such experimentation in the important work of helping children learn English.