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Stammering in children – How best to support school pupils

We hear from award-winning maths teacher Abed Ahmed on how to make life easier for students who stammer

  • Stammering in children – How best to support school pupils

There are 8.89 million school-aged children in the UK. Eight per cent of children stammer at some point, albeit temporarily. Therefore, there’s around 711,000 young children in our schools who need your support.

One per cent will go on to stammer for the rest of their lives. The small changes you make in your teaching now will make a big difference for them.

Before I tell you how to make reasonable adjustments to ensure your teaching methods are inclusive, I need you to understand what a stammer is and what it is like to be a person who stammers.

What is stammering?

Stammering is a neurological condition that makes it physically hard to speak.

A person who stammers will most likely prolong sounds or words. They may also repeat or get stuck on them. For some, you will see facial tension while trying to speak.

Stammer vs stutter

The term stammering is commonly used in the UK, while other countries use the word “stutter”.

What causes stammering?

Stammering affects mainly males and we do not know why this is the case. Stammering is not linked to intelligence and just like many other conditions, stammering covers a wide spectrum which means everyone’s stammer is different.

Living with a stammer

If you’ve ever had sleep paralysis, that is what it feels like. Trying your best to speak, but nothing is coming out. Your body is frozen and you’re physically pushing your body to do something, but you can’t.

A rush of blood reaches your cheeks and your ears start to burn. No sound is coming out of your mouth while you can see the people around staring at you in silence. You’re now grasping for air while you feel your chest tightens. Absolute chaos.

Now, imagine having these sorts of feelings from the age of three, you start to develop anxious traits because of your stammer. We don’t stammer because we’re anxious, but stammering makes us anxious.

Imagine waiting for your turn to speak in a lesson. Imagine knowing that your teacher will cold call you any second. Imagine having to introduce yourself in an ice breaker activity. It’s honestly the most terrifying experience ever.

Unfortunately, many young people and adults experience bullying; imitation is the deepest form of insult. Some try and be helpful and finish your sentences for you, which is also insulting.

How to make life easier for students who stammer

  • Speak to your student who stammers about what they’re comfortable with. You will learn a lot and will realise that the adjustments they require are most likely going to be reasonable. Speak to your SENCO, too
  • Find out how they would like to respond when you’re doing the register. Phrases like “yes sir/miss” can be difficult. You may find that they would prefer to use another phrase like “present” or “here”
  • If teaching remotely, give them the option to just write their name on the chat function or use the raise hand feature. What would really help to reduce the anxious wait for their name to be called out is marking them in first
  • Cold calling is a great technique in teaching. Find out from your student who stammers if they are okay with it. If they are, then perfect! If you find they are struggling to speak when being cold called, be patient and let them say what they have to say. If you feel they’re genuinely struggling because they don’t know the answer, then say things like “I’ll come back to you in 30 seconds’ time, have a think”
  • If they’re not comfortable with cold calling, consider using mini whiteboards when teaching in class. Mini whiteboards ensure that everyone has the chance to contribute, and not just those who are confident
  • If teaching remotely, use diagnostic questions with multiple choice answers so students can type in their answers on the group chat. Use online polls to receive answers from your students. Alternatively, you can use Google/Microsoft forms to receive answers, too
  • Measuring success by responding quickly is very common. If someone doesn’t respond quickly, we assume that they don’t know the answer. Many people who stammer will deliberately say things like “erm” as a tic to help them to speak fluently. Please do not assume that they don’t know the answer. As a maths teacher, we’ve been trained to think that if a child doesn’t know the answer to their timetables within a few seconds, they’re not really good at it. Nonsense. Give your students plenty of time. Even better, give them some thinking time before you cold call or ask for responses via the group chat or mini whiteboards. Asking questions like “would you like me to come back to you later?” is a great reasonable adjustment you can make
  • When a person who stammers is tired, they’re likely to stammer more. If you’re teaching a child near the end of the day, be mindful that they may not wish to take part at all with questions or activities that require verbal answers – and that is okay. This is where you make use of the chat function/polls/mini whiteboards. Also, they may struggle in lesson one if they’ve not had enough sleep, which leads to fatigue
  • Ice breakers – don’t ask everyone one-by-one to introduce themselves. No one likes this! If online, let everyone just type their names onto the group chat. Even better, it’s already on their profile!
  • For individual/group presentations, do not penalise students for not keeping to the time limit. Allow 25 per cent extra time for those who stammer – this is encouraged by OFQUAL. Do not make it compulsory to introduce yourself with your name. Having your name on the first slide is good enough, or if it’s a group presentation, get the first speaker to introduce everyone
  • If working in groups, ensure roles are defined and that everyone has an equal part to play. No one should be talking considerably more than another student
  • People who stammer may struggle to ask for help. It would be good if you regularly check on them to see if they need anything
  • Do not make it obvious that you are treating them differently. No one likes to be treated differently, especially in front of others

Abed Ahmed is head of maths at King Edwards VI Handsworth Wood Girls’ Academy in Birmingham. In addition to supporting students in his school, Abed runs free student support groups via Zoom: Mr ST’s Stammer Support Group – for 5- to 16-year-olds who stammer. Abed Ahmed won the nasen Teacher of the Year Award 2021. Follow Abed on Twitter at @stammer_teacher.

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