You can make a real difference to a student who stammers and their experiences at college or university. It doesn't take much to provide the right support once you understand what stammering is and the impact it has.
A stammer, or stutter, can be a disability under the Equality Act 2010. As such you and the college/university have a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to enable students who stammer to progress. Be sure to download the guide 'Supporting Students Who Stammer in Higher Education' at the bottom of the page.
- Stammering is when someone repeats, prolongs or gets stuck on sounds or words, often accompanied by some physical tension.
- Stammering and stuttering mean the same thing.
- Most people start stammering in childhood, between the ages of 2 and 5. This is known as developmental stammering. Some people start stammering later on.
- Stammering is not caused by nervousness. It has a neurological basis – research tells us that the brains of people who stammer are wired slightly differently from those who don’t stammer.
- Stammering often runs in families – around 60% of people who stammer have a relative who stammers or used to stammer.
- There is no link between stammering and intelligence – people who stammer have the same levels of intelligence as the general population.
- Up to 3% of the adult population stammers – that’s about 1.5 million people in the UK.
- No two people stammer in the same way – you’ll come across students whose stammering is very noticeable and others where there’s very little audible and/or visible signs of stammering. This is known as covert or interiorised stammering.
- Having a stammer, and other people’s reactions to it, can significantly affect the way someone thinks and feels about themselves. People who stammer report feeling ashamed, frustrated, embarrassed or anxious.
- A common way of coping with stammering is to try and avoid it, out of fear of being judged negatively. A student who stammers might say less than they want to, swap a difficult word for an easier one, avoid situations such as giving presentations, and use fillers (‘ums’ and ‘ers’) before a difficult word.
Every student is different and the extent to which stammering might impact on a person’s studies will be unique to them. Generally speaking, many people who stammer find the following speaking situations challenging:
- Introductions: saying your name can be particularly tough if you stammer.
- Speaking in front of a group: a challenging situation for lots of people and especially those who stammer, anxious about being judged negatively.
- Using the phone: this relies on voice only and some people will struggle to get started, resulting in silence and often being hung up on. This is deeply frustrating.
It is likely that students who stammer will feel anxious about:
- Admission interviews
- Seminars and lectures
- Oral examinations.
To find out more about stammering, check out this interactive resource 'Let's talk about stammering' from Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust. It sets out to 'bust myths and highlight evidence-based facts about stammering'.
See below for practical ideas on how you can help 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.
- Don’t tell them to 'relax' or 'take a breath'. This advice is unhelpful, simplistic and humiliating.
- Make sure you allow extra time for someone to speak when you pick up the phone.
- Don't equate hesitant speech with uncertainty.
- As saying their name can be challenging, find other ways in which students can learn each other's names, eg through the use of name badges or introducing one another.
There are some easy steps you can take which will support students who stammer:
- 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 will make everyone feel a bit more relaxed.
Watch our video: 'Working with, teaching, and employing people who stammer', below. It's an online seminar for employers, educators, HR professionals and managers about ways to create an inclusive environment for people who stammer at your workplace, school, university or institution, recorded in October 2020.
Near the bottom of the page you can also watch our 2022 video 'Stammering and university: creating inclusive environments for people who stammer'.
- Encourage students to use other ways of communicating, such as written responses and use of 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 and use their preferred communication channel: oral; written; photographic, eg.
- Give students specific roles within group tasks – rotate these so everyone gets an opportunity to speak.
- Encourage differentiation, such as one on 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.
Stammering can be classified as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This places a legal obligation on schools, further and higher education, 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.
Encourage students who stammer to speak to your college or university’s disability support service. Students may not be aware that stammering can be classified as a disability and even if they do, they may not consider themselves as disabled. Either way, they may not look for support. You can encourage them to do so by sharing information we’ve put together specially for students who stammer - see our College & university section.
For more on the Equality Act 2010, read our information here.
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.
The admission interview
The student may keep their answers short because they don’t want their stammer to be heard. A telephone interview might be more challenging.
- Give extra time.
- Allow written responses to be considered alongside verbal responses to questions.
- Offer a face-to-face interview rather than a telephone interview.
Lots of people who stammer find it hard to say their own name.
- Use name labels so they don’t need to say their name.
- Use pair work introductions, where they introduce the person they’ve been talking to and vice versa.
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
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.
Students may avoid presenting to a group.
- Offer the option to co-present with a peer.
- Allow written scripts for presentations to be considered alongside verbal presentation.
- Give extra time.
- Give the opportunity to practise in front of smaller groups.
- Give the option to give a presentation in a less formal way (eg sitting down around a table instead of standing up 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.
Students may be put at a disadvantage because of the perceived difficulty in communicating their ideas clearly and concisely.
- Give extra time.
- Allow the option to incorporate a written element into the format of assessment.
Other types of reasonable adjustments
- Review of assessment criteria: ‘fluency’ could be removed and replaced with ‘effective communication’ that focuses on the ability to convey thoughts and ideas logically.
- 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 device or speech easy software. See our page on Apps & devices 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.
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 at www.stuc-uk.org and follow them on Twitter, using @STUC_UK.
Download 'Supporting Students Who Stammer in Higher Education' below. It's a guide for professionals working in higher education that gives practical tips and recommendations to help ensure students who stammer get the support they need to access and progress in HE.
It was published in June 2021, as a collaboration between STAMMA, STUC (the Stutterers Through University Consultancy), 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.