Stuck for words

The Oxford Dictionary defines stammering as “speaking with
halting articulation, especially with pauses or rapid repetitions
of the same syllable”. While this describes what happens, it gives
no clue to the misery that children who stammer feel when they are
unable to join in conversations because they can’t get their words

On the British Stammering Association’s website, a teenager
explains the reaction he faced when he asked a teacher if he could
get something from his classroom: “I just stood there and repeated
I… I… I …  He replied – ‘Is this a bloody song?’ I felt awful
and sat down. This comment made worse the cruel mickey-taking that
was already going on.”

Stammering has affected people throughout history, in all parts
of the world and all levels of society. It’s got nothing to do with
intelligence. The most effective way to head off difficulties is
for help to be available when they first appear.

How does it start?

Usually these are first recognised between the ages of three and
five, though it is widely accepted that 5 per cent of pre-school
children (twice as many boys as girls) will stammer at some time
during their speech and language development. Most recover
spontaneously, but up to 75 per cent are at serious risk of
developing chronic stammering, continuing into adulthood, unless
they receive early help.

Repeating words or sounds is normal for two- to five-year-olds,
but when it is more than just a usual searching for a word, or when
the child is distressed, it is important to seek help.
Unfortunately no one can yet distinguish between children who will
recover unaided and those who will go on to stammer as adults. If
in doubt, call in a speech and language therapy specialist, advises
the BSA.

What causes stammering?

No one knows exactly what causes stammering but parents aren’t
the cause, experts agree.

Researchers and clinicians say there is no single cause and
suggest that a combination of physiological, neurological,
psychological and environmental factors makes one person more
vulnerable than another. Stammering tends to run in families, so
genetics could play a part, perhaps in the inheritance of
particular strengths and weaknesses in processing language.
Contrary to popular myth, all the research indicates that people
who stammer are no more anxious or neurotic than anyone else,
although they are probably more worried than others about speaking
in certain situations.

Help is at hand.

Speech and language therapist Frances Cook suggests ways to help
children and young people who stammer.

The younger child

  • If you think the child might be stammering, talk to the
    parents/carers, but privately rather than in a group: refer to a
    speech and language therapist if in doubt.
  • Therapists, parents and carers should liaise to make sure
    everyone uses the same strategies.
  • Avoid saying the word for the child – give them time to finish
    it themselves.
  • Slow down the rate at which you speak.
  • Don’t tell the child to slow down or take a deep breath – it
    can become part of the struggle.
  • Don’t ask lots of questions, one after another. Just as one and
    give them time to reply.
  • Keep your language simple.
  • Deal with unkind behaviour immediately, eg mimicking or

The older child

In addition to the above tips:

  • Acknowledge their difficulty on a one-to-one basis, not in
    front of a group, and discuss ways you might help to reduce
  •  Don’t guess what they have to say.
  • Concentrate on listening to the person and the message, don’t
    get sidetracked by the struggle.
  • Speak, as far as possible, in a relaxed way yourself, because
    they will be very aware of the other person’s reaction.
  • Use the same eye contact as with a fluent student.

Cook is manager of the Michael Palin Centre for
Stammering Children in London.

‘He couldn’t say what he wanted’

“I knew from six months old this child was different – he didn’t
want to communicate, there was no babbling or gurgling, he wanted
to be very much alone and his social skills were terrible. When he
first started school his speech was very primitive and when he did
start speaking he had his stammer straight away.”

At the end of his first year, however, Sandra realised he could
do much more than the teachers thought he could. He did no reading
or arithmetic at school, but at home he was happily doing
subtraction sums.

“When they said ‘Count up to 10’ he was conscious he might
stammer, so he just said, ‘I can’t do it’,” says Sandra. “Everyone
probably sees him as a naughty child, but he wasn’t naughty, he was
frustrated because he just couldn’t say what he wanted.”

A therapist told Sandra ‘not to worry about Connor’s stammering
difficulties until he was 18’, but thankfully, when he was almost
10, they came across the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering

“When we got there it was heartbreaking to see children who were
pre-school and we thought, ‘We’ve wasted all this time, we should
have been here sooner.’ But as soon as you stop thinking negatively
and get on with dealing with it it’s a lot better.”

Connor had never seen another child stammer before arriving at
the centre, says Sandra. “The group therapy at the centre was a
fantastic thing, where the boys can all be together and they
realise ‘there are other people like me and I’m not so

Sandra’s advice for parents and carers is: “Don’t let stammering
take over your life. Make them do things, don’t wrap them up in
cotton wool. The home must be a safe haven, though. If they’ve
tried all day to correct the way they’re talking just give them a
breather when they’re at home, let them get on with life.

“They’re very strong characters, these stammerers. People think
they’re all shy and nervous but they’re not, they’re far from it,
they’ll conquer a lot… stand back and let them get on and just be
there for them.”

Sandra Roberts is the mother of 12-year-old

Michael Palin Centre website:

British Stammering Association website:


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