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Simple differential strategies

Overcoming word poverty

The then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) (since May 2010 Department for Education) has introduced many initiatives to support schools with literacy work with pupils, and has provided materials for working with parents too. As part of these The Rose Report (2009) stresses the importance of speaking and listening as it explains 'that talk puts thoughts into words'.

The capacity to do this is obviously affected by the child's capacity to talk and to find those words. Word poverty in children is common, particularly among disadvantaged children where research shows that they only hear in their environment 600 words a minute compared to the 2000 words heard by a middle class child.

It is possible that when a child stammers word poverty may be found whatever his background as anxiety about his speech may distract him from learning vocabulary and developing language skills. The Primary Strategy for Literacy is very helpful here as it offers targets for identification of word poverty and other language development problems.

What to do about word poverty when the child stammers

As we know that talking is an essential building block in the learning of language it is possible that children who stammer, even if they are comfortable with their stammering speech, do not get the reinforcement of their language skills by talking to the same extent as the child who does not stammer. This is because the stammer may lead to the avoidance of talking, may affect pronunciation of a word while struggling to speak may prevent the child from hearing and monitoring his own speech and remembering words as he talks.

Consequently it is important that the language environment is as rich as possible and that the teacher or assistant spends time actually testing and teaching vocabulary and working to extend the child's language.

Parents have a role to play here and the BSA welcomes the many initiatives encouraged by the DCSF to offer schools support for involving parents in the learning of skills to support their child's literacy.

The Primary Framework for Literacy

This is helpful for children who stammer as it provides targets for speaking and listening that can be used to identify the language levels of all children and offer a basis for differential provision when a pupil may need it.

Thus the teacher can manage speaking to the whole class using language that is understandable to the children whose language ability is the most limited. Then in the group or individual work the teacher's language may reflect the understanding of the pupils there.

To encourage individual language development one school uses a system based on 'talking partners' and uses talk between the pupils as the basis of all their learning, The management of this is very skilled and allows the teacher to ensure that within each partnership the specific speaking needs of a child may be met Children read to each other, carry out discussions and explain, explore and use the range of skills required. When a child stammers the teacher should adapt a target to meet his present needs and encourage further challenge as he succeeds. As Rose recommends it is always helpful to include the child in that negotiation, and for the child who stammers it is important that he appreciates that he should work with his teacher to find ways of tackling oral tasks, rather than to try to avoid them. The teacher must judge how best to balance the child's need for challenge with the levels of anxiety that it may cause.

The emphasis must be on regulation and structure for most of this talking and the teacher should develop it so that each partnership has targets for vocabulary, understanding, reading and other skills.

Group work

When a pupil stammers, it is important for the teacher to integrate into the lesson some differential strategies that include the whole-class. The specific language development needs of each pupil in the class can then be responded to in the 'one to one' or group situation, so that the gifted child for instance is not left feeling frustrated by the use of language, which is inappropriate to his ability. When the child who stammers is a 'gifted child' strategies should be used to expand his language skills as well so as to maximise his potential. These might include having him working with a partner of similar ability and reading out the answers together, writing down his own list of specific words and reading them out with a partner and then vice versa.

Group work allows the teacher to give pupils a role that allows them to participate in a manner that is appropriate to their language skills, and offers the opportunity for the further development of those. Each group may draw upon the full range of writing and talking skills so that the child who has a difficulty may be given the chance to demonstrate his skill in the area where he is most successful.

A 'step by step' approach to his own learning

For example, a child who stammers severely may initially be given a role where he maintains the notes of the conversation. He talks when he feels able to without pressure. He should be encouraged by the teacher to develop his listening skills and to demonstrate appropriate body language as he does so. Thus support for his therapy goals may be provided. A more confident pupil who stammers may be given the role of chairman as he communicates his ideas well while continuing to stammer.

The supportive attitude of the teacher and the pupils while each child speaks, whether they stammer or not, creates a positive learning environment for all the children, allowing them to develop their self-esteem and confidence. As the teacher moves around the groups responding to a child's individual needs a technique used to work with the pupil who stammers is to check his understanding of a passage by the teacher reading in unison with him and asking him some questions periodically. In that paired reading situation he may be  quite fluent which builds his confidence. If the pupil has done well in this task and his confidence has been built up, in a 'step by step' approach to his own learning he could be encouraged by the teacher to play a small speaking role in the next exercise and then to talk with the assistant or teacher about this to monitor his understanding.

We do not know for certain whether a child who stammers, particularly in the early years of primary school could be so absorbed by his speech problem that his other skills in learning were slower to develop. Teachers have noticed however that comprehension of language by some children who stammer appears to be affected by their concentration on their speech so it is important to check comprehension and also to develop the child's capacity, if he is stammering, to be less absorbed and anxious about it. His progress may not be linear and tasks may need to be reinforced and repeated. However, he is more likely to develop a positive attitude to challenge when he feels supported in every task he embarks on.

Talking with the individual pupil

When talking to children individually the teacher should adapt the language, and pace of speech, to the individual needs of the child. For the child who stammers this could include slowing down speech, pausing and allowing plenty of time for a response. This should signal to the child who stammers that there is no need to rush, that talking can be part of an enjoyable personal interaction where the content of what he says is valued and appreciated.

Unfortunately, there are no prescriptive strategies for the support of children who stammer as more research is needed to assist teachers. However, much of the training for the support of the inclusive classroom will be a very useful resource for helping the child who stammers.


If the teacher considers that the child who stammers is not joining in as much as the others, it is always helpful to talk with him to see how he can best be helped. The teacher should find means of adapting oral tasks so that the child who stammers is supported to participate. Many children will try to get out of tasks that they do not enjoy and the child who stammers is no exception, so he must be helped to take part and his achievement celebrated

Being given notice of oral tasks, so that planning can take place, helps most children. The child who stammers, particularly, usually benefits by being given time to plan ahead and anxiety is reduced by the knowledge of when an answer is to be given or a passage read aloud. However some children who stammer prefer to go first to avoid the build up of anxiety, while others may simply just want to know their turn.

Supply and substitute teachers

When the teacher, possibly a last minute substitute teacher, decides to introduce a reading aloud session and forward planning is not possible, it is best to ask for volunteers rather than put the child who stammers under pressure to read unexpectedly. Giving alternative strategies for all the pupils for answering or reading takes the stress off the child who stammers and may encourage him to just go ahead and stammer. In rare cases, a dysfluent child may start to talk at an inappropriate length because he knows he will not be interrupted. Staff should ensure that  he takes his turn in the normal way, as with any other pupil.

Sadly a teacher may leave a child with an unfortunate memory of a speaking situation, which may have appeared trivial at the time to the teacher but has seriously undermined confidence. The BSA knows of a girl who had such an experience with an art teacher who was visiting her school to deliver specialist lessons. Probably that colleague was not aware that the girl did stammer, and this can be a difficulty for visiting specialist or substitute teachers. Ideally, if parents consent, information about a child's needs should be passed on to prevent this sort of occurrence. However, as more training becomes available for teachers on speech, language and communication needs they should be more aware of that possibility and respond accordingly.

Communicating an urgent need

There are times when the child who stammers may wish to communicate an urgent need or have significant information that should be passed on to a teacher immediately. As the pressure to speak and give exact information could exacerbate the stammer and prevent the child communicating, it may be worth talking with him about carrying a card explaining that he stammers and allowing him to show what he wants by gesture, drawing or writing. The BSA has heard of circumstances to which this strategy has been applied and appreciated by the child and his parents. The card might be used rarely: for example for an urgent request to visit the toilet, medical help or to report a matter of concern, such as the smell of smoke in the room. In the inclusive classroom there are likely to be other children who would benefit from using this card and, as many children panic in certain circumstances, the teacher could consider allowing the whole-class to have one.

Simple strategies for the classroom from the BSA

  • Aim to build self-esteem so the child manages his speaking with confidence, even when stammering severely.
  • Ensure that the other pupils are supportive in their talking, listening and behaviour.
  • Give time to finish, and do not interrupt or finish off words.
  • Listen attentively, and echo back some content so that the child feels that what he said is more important than how he said it.
  • Maintain normal eye contact and do not signal impatience. For example, avoid frequently nodding; looking at a watch or surreptitiously getting on with another task while the child is speaking.
  • Slow your own speech with natural pauses, demonstrating that there is no need to rush.
  • Talk regularly with the child to discuss what helps him.

Monitor for underachievement

Children who stammer have the same range of abilities and personality traits as children who do not. It is easy to underestimate the ability of a child who stammers as he may not always be able to express his thoughts and ideas. Teachers should TRACK achievement in relationship to the potential of the child using whatever cognitive tests are favoured in their school and intervene as appropriate.


  • Talk to the child about the best strategy to adopt and aim to avoid negative speech experiences. Use The Primary Framework for Literacy to set oral targets and encourage the child to have a 'step by step' approach to his own learning. Use differential strategies as appropriate.
  • Have an information strategy for visiting specialist or substitute teachers so they do not inadvertently upset any child with an inappropriate comment or reaction
  • Consider the use of an 'information' card to be used in the event of an emergency request.
  • Group work can offer the opportunity for differential tasks to support a pupil's language development.
  • Fluency is not a goal for the teacher unless collaboratively working on this with the therapist. But it is important to encourage the child to develop a confident attitude to talking.