A guide for supporting university and college students who stammer.
You can make a real difference to a student who stammers and their experience at college or university. It doesn't take much to provide the right support once you understand what impact stammering can have.
Here we explain how stammering might affect students. We also give practical tips and reasonable adjustments you can make to support them. If you'd like to speak with us about it, call our free helpline on 0808 802 0002. Or, start a webchat or email email@example.com
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Up to 2% of people stammer, or stutter as it's called in other parts of the world. It's when people repeat or prolong sounds, or have silent blocks when no sound comes out. There might be physical tension as a person struggles to release the sound, as well as other behaviours like loss of eye contact or head jerking.
Stammering is not caused by nervousness and it has nothing to do with intellectual capacity. Research is showing that it has a neurological and genetic basis. See What Is Stammering? to find out what we else know.
Students who stammer
Having a stammer, and other peoples' reactions to it, can significantly affect the way someone thinks and feels about themselves. People who stammer report feeling ashamed, frustrated, embarrassed or anxious. The extent to which stammering might impact on a person's studies will be unique to them. No two people stammer in the same way.
A common way of coping with stammering is to try and minimise it, having been judged negatively in the past because of it. So, whereas stammering may be very noticeable in some students, it might not be in others. A student who stammers might say less than they want to or avoid situations such as giving presentations. They might swap a difficult word for an easier one and use fillers ('ums' and 'ers') before a difficult word.
Generally speaking, many people who stammer find the following speaking situations challenging:
- Introductions. Saying your name can be particularly tough if you stammer as you can't substitute it for a word that's easier to say.
- Speaking in front of a group. A challenging situation for lots of people, especially those who stammer. They can feel anxious about being judged negatively for the way they speak.
- Using the phone. Some people struggle to start what they want to say, resulting in silence. Without visual cues the listener often hangs up, thinking the line is dead. Or they can speak over someone and interrupt them. This is deeply frustrating.
It is likely that students who stammer will feel anxious about:
- admission interviews
- seminars and lectures
- oral examinations
- Freshers' Week and meeting new people.
Some students might go to great lengths so that no finds out they stammer. This is known as 'covert' or interiorised stammering.
Here are some easy things you can do to support students who stammer.
Speaking with someone who stammers
- Listen attentively and never try to fill in words or finish their sentences.
- Don't rush the person. Give them time and your full attention.
- Maintain natural eye contact and use body language to show you're listening.
- Try not to tell them to 'relax' or 'take a breath'. This advice can be unhelpful, simplistic and humiliating.
- Allow extra time for someone to speak when you pick up the phone.
- Don't equate hesitant speech with uncertainty.
Creating an inclusive environment
- At the start of a course, encourage anyone who might have particular needs or concerns to have a private word with you.
- Introduce general communication guidelines for the whole group. These could include respecting differences, giving each other time to speak, and listening to what other students have to say. Make the point that effective communication is so much more than speaking fluently.
- Get students involved in 'ice-breaker' activities, ideally where they break off into small groups and get to know one another. This could make everyone feel a bit more relaxed.
- Encourage students to use other ways of communicating, such as written responses and diagrams.
- Avoid spot questioning.
- Allow more time for thinking.
- Allow more time for discussion to ease the demand for 'instant' participation.
- Model patience and reduce time pressure.
- Make it clear not everyone has to have a turn — it's OK to 'pass'.
- Delegate specific roles in collaborative projects that allow students to play to their strengths. Use their preferred communication channel, eg oral, written or photographic.
- Give students specific roles within group tasks. Rotate these so everyone gets an opportunity to speak.
- Encourage differentiation, such as one-to-one discussions. Or put people into groups where the student who stammers is comfortable around peers.
- Run lectures through video conferencing software to allow for use of chat rooms and polls.
- Use PADLET to encourage participation and motivate, and to reduce fear.
Watch our video 'Stammering and university: creating inclusive environments for people who stammer' below.
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Stammering can be classified as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (N. Ireland). These place a legal obligation on education establishments and qualification bodies to make 'reasonable adjustments' to ensure that disabled students are not at a substantial disadvantage to their peers.
See below for a list of reasonable adjustments you can make to support students who stammer.
Encourage students to speak to your college or university's disability support service. They may not be aware that stammering can be classified as a disability. Even if they are, they may not consider themselves disabled. Either way, they may not look for support. Encourage them to do so by sharing information we've put together for students who stammer — see our Stammering At University page. Students are encouraged to disclose a stammer at the earliest opportunity to ensure support can be implemented.
Speak to the student about what could help them. Here are some examples of reasonable adjustments which you could put in place for specific situations.
The admission interview
The issue: a student may keep their answers short because they don't want their stammer to be heard. A telephone interview might be even more challenging.
- Give the person extra time.
- Allow written responses to be considered alongside verbal responses to questions.
- Offer a face-to-face interview rather than a telephone interview.
The issue: lots of people who stammer find it hard to say their name.
- Find other ways for students to learn each other's names, eg using name badges/stickers or introducing them yourself.
- Use pair work introductions, where they introduce the person they've been talking to and vice versa.
The issue: students may fear speaking in front of a large group and may be reluctant to contribute their opinion or read out their work.
- Vary the size of the group during tutorials.
- Use pair work and small groups.
- If everyone is expected to contribute, agree with the student on the best way for them.
- Give extra time for contributions.
- Give the option for written work to be read out by a peer or support worker.
Seminars & lectures
The issue: students may hold back from contributing to discussions or asking and answering questions.
- Vary the size of the group during seminars and lectures.
- Use pair work and small groups.
- Agree with the student on the best way for them to contribute and when.
- Give extra time for contributions.
- Run seminars and lectures through video-conferencing software to allow for use of chat rooms and polls, and to take the focus off oral communication.
The issue: presenting to a group can be particularly challenging for people who stammer. They might worry about being judged for their fluency.
- Offer the option to co-present with a peer. This might reduce the pressure.
- Allow written scripts for presentations to be considered alongside verbal presentation.
- Give the student extra time.
- Give them the opportunity to practise in front of smaller groups first.
- Give them the option to give a presentation in a less formal way. Eg, sitting around a table instead of standing in front of a group.
- Use audio-visual aids to take the focus off the person.
- Allow them to record or video their presentation in private, to show later on to their seminar group.
The issue: students may be put at a disadvantage because of the perceived difficulty in communicating their ideas clearly and concisely.
- Give the student extra time.
- Allow them the option to incorporate a written element into the format of the assessment.
Other types of adjustments
- Review the assessment criteria. 'Fluency' could be replaced with 'effective communication' that focuses on the ability to convey thoughts and ideas logically.
- Have alternative modes of assessment or presentation: adapt the format to include written elements, for example.
- Provide a support worker, if appropriate, to help a student with any spoken elements of study.
Use equipment/software such as an electronic fluency devices or speech easy software. See our Apps & devices page for more information.
These are examples only. The important thing is to work out with the student what's going to be of most help to them. Download our guide 'Reasonable adjustments for students' below.
Supporting students: downloadable guide
You can also download our 'Supporting Students Who Stammer in Higher Education' guide below. It gives practical tips and recommendations for professionals working in higher education to help ensure students who stammer get the support they need to progress. It was published in June 2021, as a collaboration between STAMMA, the Stutterers Through University Consultancy (see below), London South Bank University and many individuals who generously shared their knowledge and expertise.
Please note: universities may have greater obligations under the Equality Act than what is stated in the guide. Any information it contains should not be a substitute for getting legal advice.
Stammerers Through University Consultancy
The Stammerers through University Consultancy (STUC) is a network bringing together students and university staff who stammer. Do encourage a student to check it out. Visit the STUC website and follow them on Twitter using @STUC_UK.