Pencil skills, and particularly handwriting, is a more complex skill than we often realize. A child's ability to color within the lines, trace over a shape and draw simple pictures forms the building blocks for writing letters and words. Mastery of these skills enables children to focus on the content of their writing rather than the mechanics of pencil control, pencil grasp, speed and movement.
Handwriting is influenced by the development of appropriate sensorimotor, perceptual and cognitive skills. While the most efficient way to hold a pencil is the dynamic tripod grasp (figure 1) many other patterns are commonly seen in children and it does not always require intervention or modification. In the dynamic tripod grasp, the pencil is held between the thumb and index finger, with the pencil resting on the middle finger.
It is important to try to modify the pencil grasp as early as possible if the grasp is not functional. It should be known that pencil grasp does not influence legibility so it is not a reason to change a grasp. Reasons to help a child find a functional pencil grip that works for them include: biomechanical stress on joints of the hand, fatigue or pain during writing tasks, compromised writing speed, and immature grasps that lack stability and/or mobility. Adaptive pencil grips may be helpful in teaching students to modify their grasp and are used to facilitate an optimal pencil grasp. There are many different types of grips available. For a pencil grip to be effective, the student needs to be involved in choosing the grip and to understand the importance of using it.
There are other ways to help a child correct an improper grip without using an adaptive pencil grip. Using a shorter pencil means less space for cramming in unnecessary fingers. It basically forces kids to pinch with thumb and index finger. If shorter pencils don’t help, then teach the “ pinch and flip ”. Simply have them pinch the sharpened end of the pencil and then flip it around until it gently rests in the “webspace” (that soft skin between your thumb and index finger) in the ready position. If shorter pencils and the “pinch and flip” don’t work, then try having your child hide something under their pinky and ring fingers. These two fingers are supposed to bend toward the palm while the thumb, index, and middle fingers do all the work. It really doesn’t matter what they hide under their last two fingers, as long as they can comfortably do so without their fingers bulging out from their hand because the item is too big, or having to squeeze too tightly because it’s too small. Try using a small ball of playdough, marble, crumpled piece of tissue paper, or tiny rubbery toy.
With some work, a child’s grasp can be adjusted and made more functional. With this change, they might see less fatigue and/or pain with writing, and therefore might be more willing to work on letter formations, line placement, and spacing: components that are really going to change the legibility of their writing.