Is pencil grasp important? If I had a nickel for every time I heard about grasp in the schools, I could probably match my salary. It’s almost synonymous with school-based OT to some people. Teachers will stop me to point out a “funky” grasp. I will read evaluations from previous therapists that take 2-3 sentences to describe an atypical grasp. I could scroll through OT Facebook groups right now and find at least 5 posts about pencil grasps easily. So with all of this emphasis on it, it’s got to be important, right? Something that’s key to handwriting?
Actually, the answer may surprise you.
The Research on Pencil Grasp
In fact, when it has been studied in the past, pencil grasp has been found to have no impact on handwriting legibility or speed. Check out the article “Effect of Pencil Grasp on the Speed and Legibility of Handwriting in Children” in AJOT from 2012 for a good start. Another older article that still provides good info is “Pencil Grasp and Children’s Handwriting Legibility During Different-Length Writing Tasks,” also from AJOT. Yet another article (Pencil Grips, Legibility, and Speed of Fourth-Graders’ Writing in Cursive) found that multiple types of pencil grips were functional and speedy. And just to drive the point home, another article from AJOT, this one published in 2013, concluded that different grasps had no bearing on handwriting speed or legibility.
Different Types of Pencil Grasp
You’ve probably heard that the “dynamic tripod” grasp is the best, most effective grasp. And while this is definitely a common grasp that many people develop, it’s not the only way to write. There are many other grasps that are considered “effective,” such as lateral tripod, dynamic quadrupod, and lateral quadrupod.
Even beyond these grasps that are considered “mature,” there are still other ways to hold a pencil. It’s important to keep in mind that many of these “mature” grasps are comfortable for people with fairly typical anatomy and physiology. And given that many of our students may have atypical anatomy, it makes sense that some of these common grasps may be uncomfortable or even painful for them.
One great example of this is the “Monk’s/D’Nealian grasp,” or in other words, holding the writing implement between your index and middle finger. This is actually the grasp that my partner uses, and I’ll admit, when I first saw it, I did think it looked strange! But ultimately, this grasp is comfortable and functional for him, and his writing is much neater than what I can produce with my dynamic tripod. This grasp can also be great for people with arthritis or other joint issues. And yet, you will rarely see this grip on a list of “acceptable” pencil grasp patterns.
My other favorite way to notice the multitude of functional grasps people use is an IEP meeting. The next time you’re in a big one, look at how people sign their names. I bet you’ll see many other types of grasps than just a dynamic tripod!
Should We Attempt to Change Pencil Grasp?
It depends. Are you changing it simply because it looks different than many “typical” grasps you’ve seen? Or are you attempting to increase handwriting legibility or speed? Then more than likely, it’s not worth it, especially if this is a grasp this student has been using for a while. For my practice, I no longer attempt to change a student’s grasp unless it is causing them pain or fatigue. And even then, sometimes accommodations are a better option – grasp is hard to change!
For my younger students (think around kindergarten age), I still do provide modeling of tripod grasp and activities that will strengthen and encourage it, but if they end up developing a different way to comfortably hold a pencil, that’s okay.
One other thing to consider with your younger students is fine motor development. If you’ve ever seen a toddler hold a marker, you probably noticed they don’t do it with a tripod grasp! Instead, fisted and digital pronate grasps are common until all of the muscles of the hand and arm develop. So if you see a student holding a writing implement in one of these immature grasp patterns, consider that they perhaps just haven’t had enough opportunities to develop those muscles, and don’t try to force them into a grasp pattern they aren’t developmentally ready for.
So What Should We Focus on Instead?
If you have a student that does report pain or fatigue on writing assignments, it may still be beneficial to trial different adaptive pencils and grips, or suggest alternate grasp patterns. But beyond this, if you are working with a student who has handwriting difficulties, it is much more effective to focus on interventions that directly affect legibility, especially those that address letter sizing. Something else to consider for students with persistent writing difficulties is the use of assistive technology, such as typing, predictive text, and speech-to-text.
Above all else, it’s important to keep reviewing the literature and research every year, as what is known to be “best practice” can easily change. We can’t just assume what has always been done is the most effective way to work with our students, or rely on tribal knowledge. This is especially telling when you look at the age of the research articles cited above – one of which was published in 2001. And yet, here we are, twenty years later, still pushing back against the narrative that pencil grasp is a component of handwriting that has a real effect on function.
Because truthfully, convincing other OTs to review the research and update their practice is relatively easy. The actual tricky part comes after that – educating IEP teams that not every kid with an atypical grasp needs school-based OT!
Do you want to become a school-based OT who is known as more than just the handwriting teacher? I’d love to have you join me in my signature course, The Dynamic School OT. If you’ve been looking for a way to make your school-based OT practice more evidence-based, meaningful, and effective, this is the perfect fit!