Children can develop a variety of pencil grips as they learn to write. Quite often they naturally develop the “correct” grip, but if their fingers start to go askew – wrapping the thumb over the forefinger, or tucking it underneath, for example – it is necessary to intervene early. Bad writing habits become quickly entrenched, often as early as age 6, and can lead to a lifetime of discomfort and a general lack of writing. On the other hand, a correct pencil grip – known as the “Tripod grip” – means writing comfort and fluency. According to some research there may also be a connection between fluent handwriting and brain development.
The Dynamic Tripod Grip
A correct pencil grip gives both stability and freedom of movement. In the dynamic tripod grip, the pencil is held between the thumb and first finger, with the middle finger placed behind for support. The web space – the area of loose skin between the thumb and forefinger – is open. There should be equal pressure from all three digits. If a child closes this space by tucking the thumb under, or wrapping it over, the forefinger, this reduces flexibility and causes muscle strain. The tripod grip should be introduced when the child is about five years old – not before, as this is often when problems start.
Starting too Early
The tripod grip cannot be developed without the appropriate muscle tone in the arm and shoulders. Many parents, for whatever reason, are keen for their children to start school able to write. Kindergartens and nurseries engage the children in writing or pre-writing activities. Scribbling and drawing activities, often with all the fingers wrapped round the pencil in a “stab” grip, are of course developmentally appropriate; but it is when they start learning to write – usually their names – before they are physiologically ready to form the correct pencil grip that bad habits can start.
When they do start writing, try not to give them a long implement. A short crayon or pencil encourages the use of a three-fingered grip, simply because they have nowhere to put the other fingers! For children who need some “encouragement” to hold the implement correctly, try giving them a wad of blue-tack or Play-dough to hold while they are writing, or even a ball of tissue or cotton wool: this will keep the ring finger and pinkie busy, allowing the other three digits to form the tripod.
When all else fails – try pencil grips.
In the “Writing Grip” pamphlet in their Tips for Teaching series, the National Handwriting Association say: “Changing an established grip should be approached with care, as the change will almost certainly involve much practice and motivation.” Once a grip is well-established a change should only be considered if pain or fatigue are experienced, or if legibility, page visibility or fluency are impaired. Start with informal activities – scribbling, doodling etc with the new grip, before embarking on writing activities. If after two or three weeks of trying the child has not been able to change their grip, he or she probably never will.
Most commercially available pencil grips encourage the tripod. Let the children try different grips – Crossbow’s essential pencil grip kit gives you ten to choose from – and explain what the grips are trying to achieve. One of the most popular individual grips is the Ultra: children like the feel of the material and the finger position. The new squooshi grip in soft silicone is another very comfortable grip with a good tripod definition. Demonstrate the advantages of the new grip you are trying to encourage, so the children can appreciate for themselves the extra freedom of movement or the greater comfort that are offered. You may have to settle on a compromise between the ideal and the current “bad habit”. Encourage and reward every effort, obviously. Handwriting quality may deteriorate for a while as the new grip is established. Make sure the child is not gripping too tightly – watch out for the “white knuckle ride”! Also ensure they are not pressing too hard: if they are, try giving them a much softer pencil, or even a mechanical pencil, where the lead will break if too much pressure is applied. The pencil grip designed to help the lead breakers reduce pressure is the ridged comfort grip. But whatever you do, keep your own touch light, and try and make it fun.