Supporting students who stammer in higher education

Teaching and assessment approaches that benefit students who stammer are likely to help others in your class. Here, Deborah Johnston offers a 10-point guide to adopting an inclusive mindset and methods

Deborah Johnston's avatar
London South Bank University
25 Mar 2024
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As many as 85,000 students will stammer in the UK. While many will successfully negotiate their university experience, others will experience barriers and discrimination. 

This 10-point guide explains how to help. 

Stammering is not the same as the disfluency you might experience

The UK organisation Stamma describes stammering as “when someone repeats, prolongs or gets stuck on sounds or words, often accompanied by some physical tension”. This happens over a period of time and is not the same as the occasional disfluencies that fluent speakers may experience. Different terms are used internationally, but stammering and stuttering mean the same thing. Most people start stammering before the age of five, but some do start later in life.

Forget what you think you know about the causes of stammering

The basis for stammering is neurological and many commonly held views are incorrect (for example, that it is a sign of nerves or that there is a link to intelligence). A genetic link to stammering has been indicated.

Most children who stammer will stop stammering either spontaneously or with therapy. However, if someone stammers into adulthood, they are likely to continue stammering. While there is no intervention that stops adult stammering, a range of approaches can help people stammer with confidence or manage their stammer, should they wish to.

Always work in partnership with the student

Stammering varies between people and can vary from moment to moment. Everyone who stammers is different and may have varied feelings about their stammer. Some people who stammer (PWS) may not want support and may be comfortable with their speech difference. However, others often report feeling ashamed, frustrated or anxious. Therefore, it is important to keep the student at the centre of any discussions on support. 

Remember that stammering can be defined as a disability

Stammering can be defined as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act (NI). However, for a range of reasons, PWS rarely disclose a disability when joining university and so may miss out on both reasonable adjustments or disabled student allowance-funded services. If they do reach out, course staff and study skills teams are likely to be the first point of contact for students who stammer. It is important to let students know about the benefits of using formal disability support if they choose.

Keep in mind that stammering can have a very wide impact

For those PWS who are uncomfortable stammering, a common way of coping is to try to avoid stammering. This can affect their ability to ask or answer questions in certain settings. A student might say less than they want to or, to avoid a difficult word, use complex sentence structures, replace with a less-specific word or use fillers (“ums” and “ers”) making it hard to follow their meaning. Students may avoid introductions or icebreakers and fail to give presentations. 

Students might choose modules or even courses that would not involve speaking. They might find it hard to settle in socially because of the stigma associated with stammering. While many PWS develop excellent problem-solving skills and resilience, some can become extremely isolated and depressed.

Solutions are set out below, but a key approach is to design variety in teaching, learning and assessment approaches. 

Look carefully at any oral assessment rubric

If your module uses oral assessment, consider how it fits the course learning outcomes. Unless the outcomes specifically refer to a competence standard in public speaking, you may find that you are using oral assessment to test knowledge and so you could build in alternatives, such as posters, reports or written tests.

Where oral presentation is a required competence, you could allow reasonable adjustments for PWS. 

  • Change the format of the presentation through adjustments such as allowing extra time, the ability to co-present with a peer or the use of audio-visual aids.
  • Change the presentation environment to a smaller group, a smaller room or less formality.
  • Allow them to record their presentation in private to be shown later on.

Review your assessment rubric to replace “fluency” with “effective communication”, so that you focus on the ability to convey ideas logically. 

Check your own perceptions

Studies show that fluent speakers can incorrectly associate stammered speech with lack of knowledge, uncertainty or even untruth. Sadly, there are reports of students being bullied or humiliated by teachers and lecturers. Conversely, fluency may be conflated with confidence and depth of understanding. Some staff may unwittingly find that their marks are influenced by the fluency of a presentation, even when fluency is not one of the learning outcomes.

We should all reflect on how we respond to speech differences. The key rules are: wait patiently for someone to finish their sentence; maintain eye contact; and keep a respectful demeanour.

Design an inclusive approach from the start 

Designing an inclusive approach to your module or course is preferable to trying to adjust it later. Inclusive approaches will include a wider range of teaching and learning styles, with varied ways of engaging students (such as asking questions through virtual learning environments or electronic platforms). Assessment flexibility allows students to choose how they demonstrate their learning most effectively.

Inclusive practice is also about setting standards of behaviour. So, lecturers could set out ground rules about acceptance of others, modelling inclusive behaviour and making clear that bullying has serious consequences.

Displaying Stamma material (or similar) in your university will encourage PWS to be more comfortable talking about their stammer and increase awareness of support. And improving knowledge about additional support for disabled students will help all students who have not shared that they have a disability. 

Research further if you are unsure

Many higher education professionals will have limited experience to draw on to inform their practice in supporting PWS. To widen their knowledge and perspectives, academics and professionals services staff can find a range of useful material.

On educational approaches, see: Stamma and Stammerers through University Consultancy.         

On employability and career paths, see: 50 Million Voices and Stambassadors.

See the wider benefits

In conclusion, the approaches that benefit students who stammer are likely to help other students in your class. Research has shown that fear of public speaking is one of the biggest concerns for students, and there can be big differences in the perception of public speaking by gender, ethnicity and even accent. Providing a thoughtful approach to speaking and student engagement will contribute to a higher education environment that rewards understanding, rather than speaking style. 

Deborah Johnston is deputy vice-chancellor (academic framework) at London South Bank University. She is a person who stammers and has worked closely with the British Stammering Association (Stamma) and the Stammering through University Campaign to ensure greater awareness of the needs of students who stammer.

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