The difference between stammering and stuttering is purely terminology.
In the UK, the preferred word is stammering – and the condition of stammering can be defined as, “when someone repeats, prolongs or gets stuck when trying to say sounds or words.”
There have been many different theories suggesting where a stammer may come from, from a traumatic event in someone’s childhood, to an individual’s personality type.
A person’s stammer can be eased, or worsened by certain environments or situations, such as to whom they are speaking, the fear of who may be listening to them at that time, and the significance of a speaking situation, such as a presentation or meeting.
Many of these environments and situations are things which stammerers may well encounter during their higher education career. Stammering is one of life’s levelling conditions, and any student who stammers may go through several very challenging experiences, but also occasions from which they gain much confidence and personal development.
Chief among the major challenges that stammerers may face is the issue of assessments. Stammering students will struggle significantly with assessments around speech, individual or group presentations of any kind, as well as any poster defences and debating. If assessment strategies cannot be changed, the issues around how the student can be supported in the assessment should be considered.
Having the student present only to a lecturer rather than the group, or allowing the student to be innovative in how they present the information may help them to feel more comfortable. Could the student make use video content, visual aids or alternate method or means of demonstrating the achievement of the learning outcomes? The student may also benefit from having extra time in the assessment, thus further alleviating some of the perceived time pressure which they may have placed upon themselves.
As a stammerer, you feel that you are trapped in what can be described as an “approach/avoidance conflict” – trapped, in other words, between a rock and a hard place. Stammerers often want nothing more than to feel fluent, to feel that they are not the ones delaying the conversation or situation from moving on. These feelings are behind the backdrop of knowing that they do stammer, and that they are likely to hold up conversations and to delay things.
Where possible, students should not be placed under any external time pressure, they will already be placing themselves under enough. As we will see, many time pressure considerations can be connected to the classroom, but it is important that the student has the opportunity to raise any concerns as they will be very individual in nature.
The classroom environment
The classroom is another element that may be of concern to stammerers, with many stammerers feeling reluctant to participate in group discussions and answer any questions in front of the cohort. Ways in which educators could help students is to ask the cohort if any of them feel uncomfortable speaking in front of the group to see them outside of the formal lecture environment, or to not pick on people to give opinions, rather ask for contributions, or use tools such as kahoot.
Above all, placing the stammerer under unnecessary pressure of any kind should be avoided if possible. Pressure that stammerers perceive can be a main source of anxiety, what others may see as being easy or mundane stammerers may feel as significant. Something as seemingly simple as introducing yourself can hold a considerable emotional charge. Your name is often your most feared word – as the one you need to say the most. Where possible, this should be avoided to alleviate the pressure that stammerers feel that they may be under.
Supporting the stammerer will ease the pressure of being at university. The student may rely on their tutor for a deeper level of understanding and support, or providing a space for the student to talk without feeling under pressure. As discussed previously, the best way that a tutor can support is to not put the stammerer under any extra time pressure to speak, but it is crucial that the tutor is available.
The tutor can offer to be the conduit between the student and other members of staff, and in tutorials and meetings the tutor could offer eye contact and to sit down with the student, which may help to put the student at ease. The student may well not want to speak about their stammer, in which case, the tutor should just let the student speak as they can and certainly not attempt to finish the student’s sentences. Above all, students should be given the opportunity to open up and to talk about their stammer if they want to, any support that is offered, should be student led.
I am able to draw on my personal experience, as I am someone who controls their stammer. I entered higher education unable to control my speech. I had moved from a small school, and small town in the Cotswolds, to Solihull College and found myself really struggling adjusting to life away from home in my first year, with no family or school friends to be my “voice”.
Luckily for me, the staff at the college, and the new friends whom I met were incredibly supportive. From Solihull, I went to Brunel University in West London, an even bigger place, but by this time I had learned to control my speech although I still found speaking a challenge in certain situations. The step up from an HND to a degree was significant.
As a lecturer now at Hartpury University, I naturally want to support any and all students with any additional learning requirements and I hope that this article can be of use to anyone who may have a stammerer at their institution.