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Why do people stutter less (or more) when reading?

Why do people stutter less (or more) when reading?

It is widely reported that many people stutter less in reading compared to conversation. Interestingly, it is also widely reported that some people actually stutter more when reading. How can that be, and what does it mean?

At a very basic level, the fact that people stutter different amounts in different situations is simply part of the nature of stuttering. Stuttering varies between situations, and that's just the way it is. It doesn't have to be due to any other neurological, learning, emotional, environmental, or other issue.

This is important to remember, because sometimes parents, teachers, and even speech-language pathologists may try to interpret these differences in stuttering as being indicative of some other problem, but most of the time, they don’t mean anything other than the simple fact that stuttering varies.

Still, it is true that many people stutter less when reading. This has to do (in part) with the fact that the reading task itself may be inherently easier for some - there is a reducing in linguistic formulation demands, there is a pattern to the reading, etc. These factors can be fluency-facilitating for some. That does not mean that they will never stuttering on reading or that all people don't stutter on reading; it's just that you may see a facilitating effect for some people.

On the other hand, some people actually stutter more when reading. This has to do in part with the difficulty of the reading task - for some people, reading is more difficult. This may have to do with the level of the reading passage, their comfort with vocabulary, their skill at decoding, etc. Note that it is not necessary for a person who stutters to have an identifiable reading deficit in order to exhibit more disfluency when reading; it's just part of the natural variability of stuttering for some people.

One situation in particular where you might see more stuttering during reading is in the case where a person works hard to hide their stuttering in conversation. In an extreme situation, this is known as Covert Stuttering). They may change words, postpone speaking, avoid speaking entirely, pick only words or situations or conversational partners where they think they can be fluent, all in an attempt to hide the stuttering. Some students may become so adept at this that they simply do not appear to stutter on the surface in conversational settings, even though they may be in turmoil on the inside.

Here’s where the reading comes in: When reading, people who stutter covertly can't get away with their tricks. They can’t change words because they have to say the words that are there on the page. So, you may see them stutter quite a bit in reading - and this may stand in stark contrast to their relative lack of stuttering in conversation. This would be a sign that there is a notable adverse impact of stuttering on the speaker's life, and that would indicate a clear need for treatment.

Bottom line? Don’t read too much into whether someone stutters less (or more) when reading, but be on the lookout for people who are hiding their stuttering through the use of tricks. As a diagnostic activity, we can “catch” these avoidance behaviors by using a reading passage to strip away the tricks and see what their stuttering really looks like.

(You can find more information about covert stuttering in Stammering Therapy From the Inside.)