Anticipation: Changing the Way We Think about Stuttering

Many people who stutter are able to identify a moment when they know they are about to trip up on a word or phrase.

According to Eric S. Jackson, assistant professor at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, that moment can be characterized as “anticipation” and is largely invisible to other people in conversation with someone who stutters. Jackson has conducted studies with adults, teens, and children who stutter and has explored the impact of anticipation on their flow of speech.12 He has found that understanding anticipation and addressing it in therapeutic modalities can aid parents, educators, and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) in understanding and empowering people who stutter in their speech development and acquisition.

If people can identify and measure anticipation, they can help those who stutter become mindful of behaviors that may cause speech blocks and, ultimately, help them speak more confidently.

What Is the Relationship between Stuttering and Anticipation?

Stuttering is a fluency disorder characterized by a disruption in the flow of speech; words may be prolonged or syllables repeated. Stuttering can also be a result of motor control via altered facial movements.

Roughly 70 million people worldwide stutter when they speak, but three-quarters of those who begin to stutter recover by late childhood, according to The Stuttering Foundation.

Bar chart comparing percent of children and teens who stutter with link to text version below.

View text version of this graphic.

Jackson defines anticipation as “the sense that stuttering will occur before it is physically and overtly realized.”1 While stuttering is common, the frequency of anticipation is not as well known because many people aren’t accustomed to recognizing it, which makes it more difficult to measure.

Anticipation is not the same as anxiety or nervousness, though those feelings may develop before or after the speaker senses that stuttering is about to occur.

How Does Anticipation Affect Fluency?

In a 2015 study of 30 adults who stutter, Jackson found that “all participants reported experiencing anticipation at least ‘sometimes,’ and 77 percent of the participants reported experiencing anticipation ‘often’ or ‘always.’ ”1

For some, anticipation can foster anxiety.

“When I anticipate stuttering, I tend to grow overconscious of the word which I am about to say,” said one participant. “I become more anxious and feel as if am putting all my energies in saying that particular word. In the process, I feel as I totally lose control of what I am speaking about, and sometimes totally forget about the content of the speech.”1

For others, the moment draws on complicated feelings.

“Anticipating stuttering is a double-edged sword,” said another participant. “It cues my mind in to the word that I will block on. If I think fast enough, I can usually figure out a way to make it through the sentence. Oftentimes, this is not the case and I end up hesitating awkwardly.”1

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