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What’s the difference between a stutter and a stammer?

What’s the difference between a stutter and a stammer?
Stammering and stuttering are relatively common speech disorders, which are neurological in nature and create moments of dysfluency such as: repeating words, stretching sounds or not being able to produce some sounds or words at all.

In fact, around 8% of children (that’s 1 in 12!) will experience dysfluent speech at some point, according to research (Yairi E. & Ambrose N. 2013. ‘Epidemiology of stuttering: 21st century advances’. Journal of Fluency Disorders 38 66-87). The research also noted that 1% of the adult population have dysfluent speech. However, interestingly a more recent YouGov poll suggested this could actually be as high as 3%!


Child Writing in Classroom


How can we support children with fluency disorders?

With these figures in mind, it is crucial that we understand what stammering and stuttering are and how we can support children and young people (CYP).

Acquired Stammer/Stutter

More often than not, these types of dysfluencies emerge later in life and are less common. They are often the result of disease or injury to the brain and/or spinal cord. Some causes include: stroke, tumours, meningitis and Parkinsons. They can also be related to drugs, medicine and emotional trauma. 

Developmental Stammer/Stutter

Most people recall that their stammer or stutter started when they were young children, usually around the ages of 2-5 years. Developmentally, this is the period children often experience a burst in language skills as they’re learning lots of new vocabulary. This burst can create a mismatch between the child’s language and motor planning skills. As children mature, their motor speech skills increase and as a result the stammering and stuttering behaviours usually reduce.

But what if they don’t?

Don’t worry! There are some families who will require additional input from a specialist speech and language therapist to help their child with periods of dysfluency. With the right support and strategies in place these children will become happy, confident and effective communicators. 



Will they stammer forever?

The long-term prognosis of a stammer can be difficult to identify. Although there are several factors which can increase a person’s likelihood of having dysfluent speech, the severity and long term outcome can be difficult to predict. 

Some dysfluent behaviours are classed as being ‘typical’ which means that the dysfluencies are less likely to continue into adulthood. For example: 

  • Repeating phrases and/or multisyllabic words  e.g. “I want to… I want to go to the park because because it’s fun!”
  • Using fillers e.g. umm 
  • Show no signs of frustration or additional tension
  • No family history 
  • Present for less than 6 months 

On the flip-side, there are some indicators of persistent dysfluency, which a speech therapist would consider during a child’s first session:

  • Has your child’s stammer or stutter been present for over 6 months?
  • Do they repeat single sounds / syllables? 
  • Do they stretch sounds?
  • Do their sounds or words get stuck? Perhaps their mouth is ready to say the word but they physically cannot get it out
  • Do they display secondary behaviours when they get stuck?
  • Are they showing a level of awareness and/or frustration?  
  • Are they avoiding words?
  • Are they avoiding social situations? 
  • Is there a family history?
  • Does your child have other speech and language needs?

If you find yourself answering, yes, yes, yes then please do contact a speech and language therapist. Even if you’re unsure, a chat with a speech and language therapist may help answer any queries or concerns you have. A speech and language therapist will also take into consideration the sex of your child as well as how old they were when they first began to stammer. Why? This is because girls are more likely to ‘outgrow’ dysfluencies, and dysfluencies which starts before 3 and half years are also more likely to resolve naturally.

Depending on your child’s age, presentation and awareness, the therapist may suggest more indirect work, focusing on supporting parents and providing them with strategies and techniques to support their child’s talking. Alternatively, direct work may be appropriate and again, depending on the child, this could be 1:1 or group work. 

young family talking on sofa during lockdown

What’s the difference between a stammer and a stutter?

You may have noticed by now, that the terms ‘stammer’ and ‘stutter’ are synonymous. Simply put, they both refer to the moments of dysfluency in a person’s speech and are often used interchangeably. In the UK, ‘stammer’ is the most common term used.

Here are 5 tips to help support your child:

  • Always let them finish their words or sentences and don’t interrupt them
  • Avoid asking them to ‘take a breath’ if they are speaking quickly. Instead, try reducing your own speech rate to show them what is expected
  • Ensure the environment is relaxed and low pressured
  • Give natural eye contact (not too little… and not too much!)
  • Limit the amount of questions you ask, comment instead “I have a sandwich for lunch, I wonder what you had”

Remember, no one has fluent speech 100% of the time and this expectation is not achievable. Ultimately, children with stammers should be supported to feel comfortable and confident. They should know that there is nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ about having a stammer.