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In my class we are discussing teaching English as a second language. Some contend that to teach ESL, we need to know the processes and theories about first language acquisition, but it is not clear to me why or whether this helps. Is there clear evidence that this knowledge helps?

Case in point: I know several ESL teachers that volunteer and are great teachers and know nothing of these theories. On the other hand, to draw a parallel, in the code-switching literature there is plenty of evidence that: teachers that know what code-switching is about get their students to perform better in writing and reading exams. (for example: Rodolfo Jacobson and The Implementation of a Bilingual Instruction Model: The "New" Concurrent Approach.)

Is there hard evidence or at least a program that includes first lang. acquisition theories and the teaching of ESL?

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Well it partly depends on the age of the students involved. Knowing about how first-languages are acquired won't do much help if the students are outside the critical period. That is not to say that it isn't useful to know how language acquisition works and surely an knowledge on the latest theories of second-language acquisition will probably help teachers create useful classes. – acattle Oct 26 '12 at 4:20
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L2 acquisition is always studied in comparison and contrast to L1 acquisition. There's tons of research on this. Why not start with Bley-Vroman 1990, The logical problem of foreign language learning. A really good paper. Also, Lydia White 2003, Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar. – Alex B. Sep 25 '15 at 22:48
    
"I know several ESL teachers that volunteer and are great teachers and know nothing of these theories." A language teacher who knows little or nothing about language acquisition or linguistics can be good enough for a conversation club, no more. – Alex B. Sep 25 '15 at 22:51

In your question, you use the word "need". To that, I suppose the answer is, no. However, I am of the strong opinion that knowledge of such theories makes for a better teacher.

When a teacher has a good understanding of how people learn, she can make well informed decisions about how to approach the teaching–learning process. It can help a teacher pick the most appropriate materials and activities and can help ensure an effective response to students' poor assessment results / slow progress.

At the higher level, I would say that knowledge of such theories is absolutely necessary for anyone who is assessing teachers, creating materials or designing curricula.

Nevertheless, if the question is "can someone be an effective teacher without this knowledge", then I suppose yes, it is certainly possible. I know many teachers who do at least a decent job of teaching EFL classes without a deep understanding of CLA or learning theory, though I would have to say that they are definitely limited to "Conversation Classes", "Exam Prep" and the like.

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