The digital age has brought many tremendous advances to education including access to a wealth of information for our children. However the use of technology has also had some unforeseen consequences for our kiddos’ physical development. While it may seem that computers and tablets have made holding a pencil or a pen an outdated skill, as we teach our little ones to navigate the modern world, there are many reasons to continue to practice these skills.

Writing  with a pencil or pen and holding writing instruments allows your little one to develop excellent fine motor skills that translate to all aspects of their life. Brushing teeth, eating, tying their own shoes etc.

Of course, as with all skills, the question becomes “how?”   How do we get our children to practice in a way that is fun and interesting?  First off let’s look at what an expert says on the subject: Dr. Denise Donica, Chair of the Dept. of Occupational Therapy at the East Carolina University mentions that “Selecting the correct grip for a child is truly a trial and error process based on the type of grasp they are naturally using as well as their own motivation to use the grip”. However she also mentions that: “It is important to remember that grasp must be taught, it isn’t necessarily a skill that just develops on its own”.

Is there a right (and wrong) pencil grasp?  Since each child develops his own writing style and this changes depending on their stage of development, it is better to think of their pencil grasp as “functional” or “less functional” instead of “right” and “wrong”.  Studies show that pencil grasp does not on its own influence legibility.  A child can have a perfectly functional pencil grasp and still have “sloppy” handwriting.  However, having a functional grasp will cut down on fatigue or pain during writing tasks, which in turn might make your child more willing to work on letter formation, which will actually impact the legibility of their handwriting.

Teach your little one how to hold their pencil

The first step is to teach your little one how to hold their pencil using a functional grasp. This will not look the same for every child but the basic principles are universal. 

Before even picking up the pencil make sure to sit your little one with feet flat on the floor (if your chairs are too tall place some kind of support such as a box under there feet) and have them sit with good posture.

There are two common functional holds. The three- finger, or tripod hold and the four-finger hold. To use the three finger hold use the thumb and index finger to pick up the pencil. Place the index finger on top of the pencil. Rest the pencil on the middle finger. Rest the pad of your hand on the page.

Tripod hold. Two fingers “pinch” the pencil; middle finger provides support

To use the four finger hold, grasp the pencil with your index finger, thumb, and middle finger. Rest the pencil on your fourth finger.

Four finger hold

Once a functional grasp has been established penmanship just comes down to practice. There are many ways to start working on functional pencil grasp that don’t even require a writing utensil!  Make practice fun by starting with a fine-motor activity such as playing with play doh and carving into it with a plastic knife; transferring pom poms using tweezers; putting coins into a piggie-bank slit; Dropping marbles or beads into a bottle.  Basically anything that has your child using and strengthening their pincer grasp. Not only will your child get the necessary fine-motor skills practice, they will also associate writing time with a fun activity and make them more likely to be willing to cooperate.  Practice doesn’t have to last long.  5 to 10 minutes of the fun activity followed by 5 to 10 minutes of writing is plenty, though… they may ask to repeat the activity after writing,  so keep it to just another 5 minutes.  Short, regular practice will be of more benefit than sporadic long sessions.

What to do for the actual writing part of practice?  Try having your little one practice letter shapes (vertical lines, horizontal lines and circles)  Then practice similar letters. Letters like H, I, L, and T all have similar constructs and straight lines that can help build confidence. B, D, P and R have the straight lines paired with a curved line, and so on.  As your little one is working it’s important to speak to them calmly and reassuringly through each letter (IE “start at the top straight down…” etc)

What does a less functional grasp look like?

Typically a child that is using a less functional grasp will use all his fingers to hold the pencil steady. Notice that in both these examples the pencil is pointing away from the student. Though writing this way is still possible, your child is more likely to become fatigued sooner.

It’s never too late to work on a child’s pencil grasp.  The benefits from doing so will carry over into other fine motor movements and minimize frustration for you both.

(If seeing and differentiating the lines is an issue has great options on raised line writing paper that can assist.)

%d bloggers like this: