Your Child’s Pencil Grasp – Does It Matter How He Holds His Pencil?

Your child is to have surgery.  Do you want the surgeon to use a delicate, deft tripod grasp of his scalpel for precision?  Your dentist to use a precise grasp while using a dental scaler around your daughter’s delicate gums?

Comparably, would you want your daughter to use a two-handed grasp on the steering wheel when driving your car to prepare for the unexpected?  Your son to follow his football coach’s advice to leave some “daylight” in his palm as he grips the ball to make that perfect pass?

Specific grasping patterns are recommended for innumerable tools for ease, accuracy, and effectiveness in performance, including surgical scissors, a golf club, baseball bat, crochet hook, camera to reduce “camera shake,” kayak paddle, violin bow, ping pong paddle, fly fishing pole, cowboy lariat, wood lathe chisel, tennis racket, an art paint brush or a baseball.  We all understand and agree that when you learn a new activity, learning the grasp, tension and movement pattern with the “tool” is part of the skill to be learned.  Would we recommend new students learning a skill grasp the tool any which way, or would we teach them specifically how to best hold and move the tool – is this not an essential part of becoming skilled in the new task?

Handwriting is an emotional topic for parents and teachers.  Some people suggest that pencil grip is unimportant, while describing their own fisted or unusual grip and how they write neatly despite it.  One writer indicated that if you discuss and attempt to correct a child’s pencil grip, you will make a child feel bad about themselves, while another expressed how it always really bothered him when people questioned him about his grip.  Certainly, sensitive and supportive assistance must always be provided to students, with care to prevent such feelings of criticism that may cause loss of self-esteem.  Rather than only insisting that students change, it is more helpful to provide demonstrations that convince them of the value of a precision grasp.  Though pencil grasp is certainly not the only thing we need to consider when a handwriting problem surfaces, it is an important factor that should be considered, evaluated, and improved.

Orthopedics and kinesiology remind us that a “defining and universal characteristic” 1 of humans is tool use, as is the prehension pattern “…with the ability to oppose the thumb to the fingers.” 2  A precision or prehension grip “…is used whenever accuracy and precision are required.  The radial digits (index and long fingers) provide control by working in concert with the thumb to form a “dynamic tripod” for precision handling.” 3

Rather than a static hold that actually blocks movement, a precision grip is dynamic and moving and provides us dexterity.  This allows for a higher degree of function, because it allows a “greater variety of movements,” and allows the hand to “act while grasping.” (Kapandji )  “In order to maintain a dynamic relationship, the thumb should circumduct and oppose.”4 “Tip-to-tip pinch forms an “O” between the thumb and index finger.” 2   Such refined movement is possible for us as humans, and enables us to learn and achieve many skills.

All of us understand that precision is important in fine manipulative tasks.  Most of us would certainly accept advice on the “best grasp” of a tool to perfect our performance in an area of interest to us, for instance to throw a curveball or a fast ball.  Though some deny its importance, precision, dynamic, dextrous movement also matters for good handwriting skill.  The denial that this is important may result from strong emotions surrounding handwriting rather than any logical and substantive argument.

Why does it matter? Some students struggle writing legibly, others with achieving adequate writing speed to take notes and complete work in expected time frames.  It has been proven that poor handwriters get lower grades, and that a high percentage of older students experience writer’s cramp and pain.  But that is another article!

My experience, having evaluated and helped students with handwriting difficulties for years, is that students can benefit in their writing ease, endurance and legibility when they master the skill of a dynamic tripod grasp.  When we help them achieve it they can have better function for life!

Copyright 2011 Joan Scanlon-Dise, OTR

1.  Johnson-Frey, Scott (2003).  What’s So Special About Human Tool Use? Neuron, 39, 201-204.
2.  Oatis, Carol A., 2009, Kinesiology: The Mechanics & Pathomechanics of Human Movement, Lippincott Williams &     Wilkins.
3.  Magee, David J. (2008).  Orthopedic Physical Assessment.  St. Louis, Missouri:  Saunders.
4.  Tubiana, Raoul (1981). The Hand. Philadelphia, PA:  W.B. Saunders.

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