College students who stutter and public speaking assignments

A college student who stutters is taking a speech class. How should the instructor fairly evaluate the student, knowing from the start that the student stutters?

That question is raised every semester as students who stutter enroll in speech performance classes. The question was raised on Stutt-L (September 1999) and the following discussion is offered, with the permission of the authors, to help other teachers of speech and their students who stutter come to agreement about speech performance classes.

  • Lou Heite wrote: The instructor is to be commended for seeking advice. I wish there were more of that sort! My first question is, is this a required course? If so, has the student tried to find an equivalent "communication skills" course with less emphasis on public speaking, and been denied the opportunity? That is going to have a tremendous effect on whether the student is wholly committed to the course work. Someone taking a punishing course because some higher authority told them they had to because of some agenda of its own is going to have a vastly different learning experience than someone who is taking it as a personal challenge.

    Next, is the student in therapy? If so, the professor, the student, and the therapist ought to meet and work out what the special criteria are - similar to planning an IEP. Even if the student is not in therapy, if there is a speech path department at the university, one of the professors or grad students might be interested in standing in as a "visiting expert." It is hard to separate "real" stuttering from the hemming and hawing of an inexperienced public speaker, so assistance from a trained observer who understands stuttering ought to be part of the package.

    How open is the student, and how able is he or she to discuss stuttering? If the student can give the professor a fair picture of what his or her stuttering is like, they can enter into something like a "learning contract" agreement, in which the professor will agree to special provisions, such as tacking an extra minute onto a three-minute speech, or ignoring long silent blocks while timing the presentation.

    The professor should be sensitive to the issue of time pressure, and needs to understand that time pressure usually increases stuttering. However, the student might discover that the heightened level of attention and activity that one enters when delivering a prepared speech can be a fluency enhancer, much the same way that acting is for some people. Occasionally grey clouds really do have silver linings.

    Probably the most important thing for the student and professor to do is to sensitize the rest of the class to the student's stuttering before anyone gives any speeches. The professor and the student together can work out an explanation of what the classmates can expect, and how they are expected to react. Hitting the class between the eyes with a noticeable stutter without warning is going to put an incredible strain on both the student in question, and the student's classmates. Imagine having to endure The Look times twenty-five, and be graded on it to boot! It would be best if the student can take on this duty, much the way the Toastmasters on these lists talk about stuttering in their introductory speeches. Usually people are very tolerant of stuttering if they know what is going on, though it is mighty difficult to see that when you are on the hot seat. But even if the student is not up to that yet, the instructor really should not throw the student to the lions by making him or her display his or her stuttering without warning the audience.

    A professor of rhetoric (or even just a speech teacher) ought to be able to separate good communication from the mechanics of public speaking, but if not, this can be a learning experience for the professor as well as the student.

  • Russ Hicks responded that in his opinion a student who stutters should be treated the exact same as everyone else.

    A "speech" class is not about fluency, it's about communication. If it were about fluency, 99% of the students would automatically get a A in the course just by showing up. (They wish it were that simple!) But in truth, a speech class teaches the students how to COMMUNICATE more effectively. And almost everyone in the class - even stutterers - goes into the course on pretty much an even footing. Everyone can learn to communicate more effectively.

    I stutter and I'm evaluated all the time. Not on my fluency but on my ability to communicate. We've all had fluent - and exhaustingly boring - teachers drone on and on in class, communicating nothing to the students. THEY need the speech class too! We as stutterers envision fluent people having no fear about speaking in public. But that's totally wrong. Public speaking is the number ONE fear of all people in the world. (Number TWO is death!)

    So it's the effectiveness of communication that is being evaluated in a speech class. And stutterers can communicate as effectively (or as INeffectively) as anyone. Body language, eye contact, speech organization, friendliness, word selection (where stutterers may even have an advantage!) , topic content, enthusiasm, motivation, persuasion, vocal variety... all those characteristics have little or nothing to do with fluency. Evaluate the overall communication effectiveness, not the fluency.

    I disagree with Lou Heite (which I rarely do!) in that I would want NO special rules for a stutterer in a speech class. Giving the student extra time puts the teacher in the impossible position of "handicapping" (like in golf) the stutterer depending on the severity of his stutter. If a stutterer gets an A in the class, I'd want it to be legitimate A, not one where he was given an unfair advantage. This is for the benefit of both the stutterer and the rest of the fluent students. For a stutterer to succeed in a speech class - on a level playing field - is an important achievement, and one which I would not want watered down.

    Lou is absolutely correct, however, when she recommends the involvement of a qualified speech therapist, especially if the student's stutter is severe by any standards. It may be the student's first contact with the SLP community, which can only help everyone involved.

    And the stutterer can help educate the rest of the class about stuttering by showing obvious courage by standing up in front of them and talking in spite of a stuttering problem. This can be not only educational for the students, but highly motivational as well.

    Good luck giving advice to the professor asking for help. I wish more professors cared enough to ask advice when they need it. The prognosis for this adventure is very positive. I wish everyone the best.

  • Lou Heite responded to Russ Hicks' post: Russ, in an ideal world it would be great if the stutterer could succeed "on a level playing field" as you put it

    -- BUT--

    the field ain't level, friend.

    At the very least, there are legal requirements that the professor and the school consider whether there are extenuating circumstances that require accommodation.

    There very well might be such circumstances. None of us know anything about the professor, the course requirements, or the stutterer, but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to envision circumstances in which accommodation seems only decent.

    For the sake of argument, let's suppose that the student is someone who has long silent blocks. Now, suppose the teacher usually establishes a requirement that three pauses of more than, say, five seconds in duration during a five minute speech mean loss of a letter grade. That is a pretty ordinary kind of standard for grading in a public speaking class. I know, I know, the pauses might not have any effect on the *content* of the presentation, or even on the style for that matter, but nevertheless, the criterion has been set and the stutterer has certainly not met it. Should the stutterer be penalized? Would it be fair? (It might be fun to take a vote!)

    The laws do require "reasonable accommodation." If the student were blind, that would mean books in braille or on tape, or a person hired to read them aloud. If the student were deaf, that would mean provision of a sign interpreter for lectures, or lectures transcribed and printed out. And I could hardly imagine anyone complaining that a student who uses a wheelchair should be penalized for not standing at the podium. I don't see a difference between that and a student who has a speech problem expecting accommodation in an appropriate way. The student and the professor have to work out what is appropriate, though. My suggestion of a little extra time was only a suggestion, but when you get down to it, isn't that the accommodation most fumbletongues want most? A little extra time, that's all.

  • Bob Quesal wrote offlist - Here at Western Illinois University, the COMM department has always had a policy through which students who might have difficulty completing the Public Speaking class could choose from alternative ways to complete the requirement. One of the instructors, who recently retired, had a special section in which students who suffered from "performance anxiety" could give their speeches to a small group--usually comprising the other students who had performance anxiety or students who would have trouble for other reasons (e.g., stuttering).

    There have been three disfluent individuals for whom I have served as a "consultant" in the past three or four years. In one case, we had a highly disfluent client (one who, in fact, spent his whole college career in stuttering therapy in our clinic) who chose the "performance anxiety group" option. In this case, he had to do all the preparation that other students did and had to give his speech in public (small group of two or three students, the instructor, his clinician, and me), but the instructor graded him not on fluency, but the effectiveness of his message. In other words, as long as what he said was coherent, he followed the "this is what I'm going to say, this is what I'm saying, this is what I just told you" sort of organization, used adequate visual aids, and had his facts right, he was graded based on that, not on how fluently he spoke. This instructor also took issues like eye contact into account--she always praised this student when he had even moderate eye contact during his speeches--in fact, his conversational eye contact became better as a result of this praise during his speech class. With these "considerations" he did well in the class and since has done a number of presentations in other classes. He has audiotaped these other presentations for me, and while his fluency still is not all that great in many cases, he manages his speech well and always gets his message across to his peers. Had he not taken the public speaking class, I do not know if he ever would have found the courage to present in other classes.

    The second student was a stutterer for whom I have been providing direct therapy. When he took the public speaking class, we consulted with his instructor before the class started, and he had an option of doing the "performance anxiety" option or the regular class. In this case, because the student was not a highly disfluent speaker, he chose to do the regular class. I convinced him (via a good deal of arm-twisting) to do his first speech on stuttering, to advertise to the class that he stuttered. That was an excellent ice-breaker, and he completed the class with little difficulty. The instructor was aware of his stuttering, but his grade was based on "extra-fluency" factors that related to organization of his speeches and the like.

    In the case of the third student, I was called in by an instructor to observe a speech this fellow made. She was concerned about his fluency (he had been a client in our clinic when he was in Jr. High), but in my observation of him, the thing that I noticed the most was his lack of loudness and imprecise articulation during his talk. We gave him the option to come and work with me. He didn't actually come for therapy, but did drop by my office two or three times and he and I did some work on increasing loudness, projecting better, stuff like that. At the end of the class, he stopped by my office and was very grateful for the help I had given him--he had completed the class successfully.

    I think what was critical in all of these cases was that the instructors knew a bit about stuttering and were in consultation with me. I think it's critical that Public Speaking instructors know how to "factor out" fluency when considering how well someone gets a message across. Actually, if you talk to these folks, they will tell you that what makes a successful speech is not necessarily just "delivery." In my conversations with these instructors, I usually am able to point out that (since they really are the ones who said it to me), and that alone seems to clarify things for them. (Of course, as you well know, not all college instructors are created equal--some will go out of their way to be helpful, others prefer not to be "bothered." I know which instructors to steer students toward and which to steer them away from.)

    I agree, to some extent, with the folks who have posted to the lists and said that grading a stutterer based on fluency is like grading a physically disabled student in gym class based how well s/he can run and jump. However, I think in many cases, taking a public speaking class is a very good experience for a stuttering client. In my experiences, the students nearly always do better than they expect, and it really is a good chance for them to "advertise" their stuttering. I think it's a mistake to make an _a priori_ assumption that they cannot do well because they stutter. It's much better to have them do well in spite of the fact that they stutter.

    added September 14, 1999