Teach your child the correct way to hold a pencil or pen

by | Jan 5, 2022 | Front page posts, Parents, Uncategorized, Writing | 0 comments

When your child first picks up a pencil, their teacher shows them how to hold it, and then off they go.

Well that’s what most of us believe…

Even as an experienced teacher myself, I too used to presume that once a pencil/pen grip had been put in place in the early years of education, it was somehow, ‘done’.

It’s funny how so many of us believe that a poor pencil/pen grip is set in stone and impossible to unlearn. When of course that isn’t the case!

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Why is it important to fix an incorrect and uncomfortable pencil/pen grip?

  • A poor pencil/pen grip is almost always less comfortable than a good one. Tension in the joints of the hand is central to a bad grip, and this leads quickly to pain when writing. A painful pen grip as an older student has a negative impact on writing fluency in important essay-based exams. Your child’s performance in subjects including English Literature and Language, History, Geography, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Art History, Business Studies, Classics, Drama, Politics and Economics might all be negatively affected by discomfort when writing.
  • A poor pencil/pen grip is a key factor in messy/untidy handwriting. Although it is possible to write neatly with an uncomfortable pencil/pen grip, most children and adults are not able to achieve this. Those with messy writing are often (unfairly) judged as less able students, or believed to have less academic potential than those with neat handwriting. These students may underperform in school, or their performance may be negatively impacted by unconscious – yet powerful – low teacher expectations.
  • A poor pencil/pen grip and the hand discomfort, messy handwriting and low teacher expectations that come with it, are highly likely to have a negative impact on a child’s self-confidence. Children who struggle to write neatly and fluently (particularly those who are naturally bright and academic) are painfully aware of their limitations and tend to compare themselves unfavourably with their classmates. They enjoy writing far less than their peers, and try to avoid – or do the minimum – when they are set everyday writing tasks. This exacerbates their underperformance in school.
  • A poor pencil/pen grip can lead to blisters and painful bumps on your child’s hand. And they can last a lifetime. The most common is a bump of hard skin on the inside of their middle finger or a shiny raised bump on the underside of their wrist. Ouch (I have both of these still and can remember the pain of writing in exams. In my Cambridge finals I had to write for 3 hours non-stop and it was excruciating)…

What are the stages of pencil/pen grip development?

Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that there are no recorded stages of pencil/pen grip development in the English National Curriculum.

The only reference to pencil/pen grip in the documents is when children are very young and first starting school – at the beginning of their writing journey, ‘Five-year-old children are expected to hold their pencil comfortably and correctly.’ 

The idea is that very young children learn fine motor control through play and some targeted activities. At first they paint with their fingers, then they move to sturdy paint brushes and painting tools, they learn to manipulate play dough and to sculpt shapes with their fingers, until they are handed a pencil or colouring pen and off they go. 

At this specific stage, teachers demonstrate how the pencil or pen should be held.

There are four standard pencil/pen grips taught:

  • The dynamic tripod where the thumb and forefinger grip the writing tool, the third finger supports and the fourth and fifth fingers act like stabilisers on a child’s bicycle.
  • The lateral tripod is similar to the dynamic tripod. The main difference is that the thumb is engaged as part of the grip to lock the pencil in place. 
  • The dynamic quadropod is where the first three fingers and the thumb are all used to grip the pencil/pen. The side of the hand and little finger are used as stabilisers.
  • The lateral quadropod the fingers work together to control movement, with the pencil/pen resting on the top of the ring finger.

A feature of all of them – and any acceptable grip – is that the hand and fingers are all relaxed and comfortable. Tension is a big no.

How do you know if your child is gripping their pencil/pen too tightly?

This is easy to spot as the hand will look tense (the knuckles may even turn white). If you give your child a retractable pencil they will repeatedly snap the exposed nib and find it impossible to write with. Sharpened pencils will also snap repeatedly and marks made with a pen will be thick and will clearly show through on the page beneath their writing page.

If so, all is not lost! I’m left-handed and my handwriting is reasonably neat and fluent. But there are a few tricks to improve the writing experience for left-handers like me:

What are the specific challenges that left-handed writers face?

Written English was originally set up with right-handers in mind. When you write from the left to the right, your newly-formed letters sit proudly on the left as your hand glides away from them to the right. 

Being a left-hander myself, I found it odd even writing the paragraph above as it is not my experience at all. When I write, my hand follows the newly-formed letters as a natural smudging-machine, poised to spoil the words I have just written.

So left-handed writers have a problem to solve and they address it either by arching their hand above the words, dropping their hand below the words, or simply rolling right over them and ruining them. The latter option is the most common one (from my own experience teaching children to write) and is miserable for the poor child involved.

Pencil/pen grip teaching should be the same for left-handed writers as for right-handers. But these small changes will make their experience more positive:

  • Sit your child slightly higher on their chair – up on a cushion is ideal.
  • Push their paper forward a little on the desk/table and then tilt the page so that the top right hand corner is dropped down and the bottom left hand corner pushed up a little.
  • Encourage them not to lean around the top of the page – their hand should be under the line, not on it or above it.
  • Choose a quick-drying, micro-nibbed pen to minimise any smudging.

Should I encourage my child to use a pencil/pen grip aid?

The short answer to this is – no.

These are usually made from brightly coloured rubber or plastic and are slipped over the pencil or pen to allow the child to rest their fingers in the ‘correct’ place. What I hope I’ve shown in my description of the four key pencil/pen grips listed above is that the arrangement of the fingers in the grip itself can vary. 

The key to a good pencil/pen grip is that it offers control of the writing tool alongside – and most essentially – a lack of tension in the hand and fingers. 

Using a pencil/pen grip aid will not solve the tension problem and may force your child to use a particular finger arrangement that doesn’t feel natural to them. I prefer a completely different approach to fixing the problem.

Should I encourage my child to write with a pencil or a pen?

For me it is always a pen.

Why do I hate the pencil as a writing tool? Because it quickly becomes blunt and ugly. If you absolutely insist that your child writes in pencil then I would very much encourage you to offer them a retractable pencil to write with. They are never blunt, and if pressed too hard the lead breaks – encouraging a lighter touch. 

Why am I a huge fan of the pen as my writing tool of choice for all children (and adults)? Because the right pen will give your child’s handwriting an instant uplift.  Sharp angles will be smoothed, cursive joining will be eased, and overall handwriting looks so much more mature and impressive.

The key is to choose the right pen. 

Biros mostly look terrible and are not to be recommended. They should be thrown out alongside faded or frayed felt tip colouring pens and old-fashioned scratchy fountain pens (I love a fountain pen and had such fond memories of them that I asked my husband for one for Christmas last year. Embarrassingly I haven’t used it – I hadn’t realised just how amazing my rollerball pens are to write with – see below – the world has moved on).

Take the time to choose the right pen for your child. It should be a smooth rollerball nib (not a biro) and my favourite is the Uniball Eye Fine Rollerball Pen in black or blue. For maths and scientific writing, or for children who struggle with smudging, the Uniball Eye Micro Rollerball pen is probably a better choice.

How do I fix my child’s pencil/pen grip?

This is surprisingly stress-free, straightforward and manageable. All you need is a week (when your child is at home from school) and some very simple tools.

Tools needed:

  • A RETRACTABLE PENCIL, which has such a delicate lead that it snaps when too much pressure is put on it, encouraging a lighter touch. The set linked above are my favourites as they are brightly coloured and children love them. 
  • Print up copies of my special pen grip infinity curves.

Step 1)

Arrange your child’s hand on the pencil with index finger on the top pointing towards the pencil-point. The fingers should be relaxed and avoid overly bent knuckles. The grip will feel weak and tricky to write with at first, but this is to be expected.

Step 2) 

Your child should place his or her pencil at the starting point on the infinity curve. Sweep the pen up and around the figure-of-eight guiding line. 

Although each curve begins with the ‘start here’ part, you should encourage a gliding, many-times-repeated figure of eight. Don’t return to the start each time, but keep the retractable pencil sliding round and round.

All the time, keep your eye on their pen grip and adjust where necessary. Do explain that this is the whole point of the task, because otherwise that tense hand grip will drift back into play.

Step 3) 

Do this exercise every single day as often as possible. Have a sample on the table in the kitchen, by your child’s bed, and all over the house with another retractible pencil nearby. The more they do this the better.

Step 4) 

When they become brilliant at it – using the strange-feeling new pencil grip – simply make the infinity curve smaller and keep on going, until it is the size of everyday handwriting.

To print a smaller version of the curves, change the print setting up to 2 copies to a page and then 4 copies and so on.

Praise and reward constantly. From the moment they begin to practise, check their pencil grip is correct every single time they pick up a pen or pencil. Laugh about how feeble and rubbish it feels at first and don’t let them give up and return to their bad habits.

Then your child’s hand grip will be fixed. I can vouch for the plan absolutely as my 13-year-old middle son did it first, followed by my 8-year-old. Both were successful (although I admit that I incentivised my youngest with a pair of trainers he had had his eye on…).

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