Should we worry about pencil grip?

“Should we worry about pencil grip?”

by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L

balanced-literacy1Handwriting mastery has been determined to be a leading factor in literacy.  Research has proven that early handwriting instruction, if done right, improves students’ handwriting and that poor handwriting skills place the earliest constraints on writing development. (1)  Writing* instruction, and its favorable effect on improving reading fluency, has been given the rating of “strong confidence” among research experts. (2)  This is significant in the light that reading skills lie “at the heart of education,” with learning to read and write providing the foundation for both academic and economic success. (3)  Such as that is, handwriting mastery continues to remain a skill that 10%-34% of school-age children continue to fail to achieve, (4, qtd. in 5) with handwriting problems being prevalent in up to 25% of typically developing children. (6) That may explain why results from a survey of 167 occupational therapists revealed that 98% reported problems with handwriting to be the most common reasons for referrals from teachers. (7, 8)

Handwriting is a complex skill that involves sensory, perceptual, motor, cognitive, and language functions and encompasses many layers of prerequisite skills.  These include the ability to

  • balance without use of the hands,
  • grasp and release an object voluntarily,
  • use of the hands in a led-and-assist fashion,
  • interact with the environment in the stage of constructive play,
  • hold utensils and writing tools and to form basic strokes smoothly, and
  • perceive letter and orientation to printed language. (9)

It is the role of the occupational therapist to evaluate these underlying skill areas to determine the student’s strengths and weaknesses and to develop a remedial treatment plan to address those needs that are preventing him from achieving handwriting mastery.  Among the ergonomic mechanisms that affect the production of handwriting are body positioning, pencil positioning, pencil grip positioning, and pencil grip type. (10)  Each of these factors has been considered to be a significant factor in determining handwriting mastery and, hence, an assessment of each has been included in the traditional occupational therapy evaluation of handwriting development skills.  Pencil grip efficiency has been the long-established benchmark for “good handwriting,” with the dynamic tripod grasp encouraged by teachers and occupational therapists.  Therefore, when a student fails to achieve Abby for Website 2013-10-23that level of mastery, his pencil grip is the first factor that gains attention and at times claims the lion’s share of time, energy, and resources.  If he is not using the “optimal” pencil grasp, then changes are implemented.  Pencil grip adaptations can be easily and inexpensively obtained and sent into the classroom or to home as quick remedies for illegible and incorrect handwritten work.  And hours of extra practice with a grip or a “better pencil grasp” are often prescribed as a plan to fix handwriting problems.  But, is the pencil grip the most advantageous aspect to review when a student presents with a poor handwriting style?  Should that be the first place to start when he is referred to us for services or the teacher asks us to suggest classroom adaptations?  Does pencil grasp, or the dynamic tripod grasp in particular, have a major impact on handwriting mastery?

Not according to the research.  In fact, research suggests that 50% – 70% of children in a given sample use the dynamic tripod grasp (11), with more than half of second grade children surveyed using the dynamic quadrupod grasp.  (12, qtd in 13).   The results of a study conducted with 4th grade students determined that there were four mature handwriting grasps that were equally functional for children of that age:

  • Dynamic Tripod
  • Dynamic Quadrupod
  • Lateral Tripod
  • Lateral Quadrupod. (14)

Most importantly, the researchers also found that “no relationship was found between grasp and handwriting legibility or sped when children used of the mature grasp patterns” (Collmer, p. 29) below:

Grasp Patterns for Functional Writing. Adapted from “Effect of pencil grasp on the speed and legibility of handwriting after a 10-minute copy task in Grade 4 children,” by H. Schwellnus et al. (2012). Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 59(3), 180-187. (PHOTO PROPERTY OF COLLMER, K., REF. 18)

In another study conducted to discover the “Effect of Pencil Grasp on the Speed and Legibility of Handwriting in Children,” (15) it was found that although the fourth-grade participants utilized the dynamic tripod and lateral quadruped grasping patterns equally, they also displayed the use of the other two mature grasps identified in the study above.  In addition, this study found that 20% of the participants switched grasp patterns during the writing, with an equal percentage switching between the dynamic and lateral tripod and between the dynamic and lateral quadrupod.  Analysis of the results indicted that grasping patterns did not have an effect on legibility or speed.  This study used a 2-minute writing task for assessment.  The authors of the study indicated that alternating between two grasping patterns with the thumb position switching from opposition to adduction across the top of the pencil may indicate the need to cope with pain or discomfort during a longer-writing task.  This would presume to result in a slower writing speed accompanied with periods of rest.  However, in an additional study of fourth graders who participated in a 10-minute writing task, it was found that while the quality of the legibility of the handwriting decreased after the copy task, the speed of writing actually increased.  After analyzing the results, the researchers concluded that there was no difference in the quality or speed scores among the different pencil grasps before and after the task and questioned the practice of having students adopt the dynamic tripod grasp. (13)

Photo is property of Handwriting With Katherine.

Although 40% of teachers surveyed identified “uncorrect” pencil grasp as a common handwriting difficulty” (16 qtd in 13), researchers found that pencil grasp played a significantly less role then is perceived in a child’s ability to master handwritten tasks.  Instead, it was revealed that body positioning, pencil positioning, and consistency of pencil grip presented a significantly higher correlation with the measure of handwriting efficiency – legibility and speed. (10)  The implication of the findings of these studies for pediatric occupational therapy is that we must look beyond the seemingly obvious and traditionally accepted cause for handwriting problems.  Handwriting development skills can lie deeper than pencil grasp and their needs can be uncovered only with an assessment that targets them.

* Handwriting vs Writing:  Handwriting  is the process through which the writer uses his hand to produce letters, words, and sentences on the page in order to create, whereas writing is the skill  that “enables him to express his knowledge and thoughts.”  (Clark, Gloria Jean, “The relationship between handwriting, reading, fine motor and visual-motor skills in kindergarteners” (2010).  Graduate Thesis and Dissertations. Paper 11399. p. 1)
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, owner, Handwriting With Katherine
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, owner, Handwriting With Katherine

Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.

Collmer Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation

  Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; in the Universal Publishing Handwriting Teachers’ Guides; on any guest blog posts or any other social media is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the author of these links/posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.
Photos are the property of Handwriting With Katherine and are not to be used in any fashion except as links to the appropriate blog or the Handwriting With Katherine website without the expressed, written permission of Katherine Collmer.  Photos that include links to an outside site are the property of those sites and should not be used in any fashion excepts when they include links to those sites.


  1. Graham, Steve. “Want to Improve Children’s Writing? Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting.” American Educator Winter.2009-2010 (n.d.): 20-25. Web. 26 June 2015.
  2. Graham, Steve, and Michael Hebert. “Writing to Read: A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Writing and Writing Instruction on Reading.” Harvard Educational Review 81.4 (2011): 710-44. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.
  3. Gentry, J. Richard, Ph.D., and Steve Graham, Ed.D. Creating Better Readers and Writers: The Importance of Direct, Systematic Spelling and Handwriting Instruction in Improving Academic Performance. Saperstein Associates. Saperstein Associates, 2010. Web. 24 June 2015. <>.
  4. Smits-Engelsman, B.c.m., A.s. Niemeijer, and G.p. Van Galen. “Fine Motor Deficiencies in Children Diagnosed as DCD Based on Poor Grapho-motor Ability.” Human Movement Science 20.1-2 (2001): 161-82. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.
  5. Schwellnus, Heidi, PhD, Heather Carnahan, PhD, Azadeh Kushki, PhD, Helene Polatajko, PhD, Cheryl Missiuna, PhD, and Tom Chau, PhD. “Effect of Pencil Grasp on the Speed and Legibility of Handwriting in Children.” The American Journal of Occupational Therapy 66.6 (2012): 718-26. Web. 11 July 2015.
  6. vanderMerwe, Joanne, BScOT, M OT, Neeltje Smit, B OT, B Hons OT, MBA, and Betsie Vlok, M OT. “A Survey to Investigate How South African Occupational Therapists in Private Practice Are Assessing and Treating Poor Handwriting in Foundation Phase Learners: Part I Demographics and Assessment Practices.” South African Journal of Occupational Therapy December 41.3 (2011): 3-11. South African Journal of Occupational Therapy. Web. 7 Oct. 2015. <>.
  7.  Case-Smith, J., (2002). Effectiveness of school-based occupational therapy intervention on handwriting. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 56, 17-25.
  8. Hammerschmidt, S. L., and P. Sudsawad. “Teachers’ Survey on Problems With Handwriting: Referral, Evaluation, and Outcomes.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 58.2 (2004): 185-92. Web. 15 Aug. 2015.
  9. Chu, S. “Occupational Therapy for Children with Handwriting Difficulties: A Framework for Evaluation and Treatment.” The British Journal of Occupational Therapy 60.12 (1997): 514-20. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
  10. Rosenblum, S., S. Goldstand, and S. Parush. “Relationships Among Biomechanical Ergonomic Factors, Handwriting Product Quality, Handwriting Efficiency, and Computerized Handwriting Process Measures in Children With and Without Handwriting Difficulties.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 60.1 (2006): 28-39. Web.
  11. Zivani, Jenny, and Margaret Wallen. “The Development of Graphomotor Skills.” Hand Function in the Child: Foundations for Remediation. 2006 ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby/Elsevier, 2006. 217-36. Print.
  12. Benbow, M. (1987). Sensory and motor measurements of dynamic tripod skill. Unpublished Thesis, Boston University.
  13. Schwellnus, Heidi D. “Pencil Grasp Pattern: How Critical Is It to Functional Handwriting?” Thesis. University of Toronto, 2012. Print.
  14. Koziatek, S. M., and N. J. Powell. “Pencil Grips, Legibility, and Speed of Fourth-Graders’ Writing in Cursive.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57.3 (2003): 284-88. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.
  15. Schwellnus, Heidi, PhD, Heather Carnahan, PhD, Azadeh Kushki, PhD, Helene Polatajko, PhD, Cheryl Missiuna, PhD, and Tom Chau, PhD. “Effect of Pencil Grasp on the Speed and Legibility of Handwriting in Children.” The American Journal of Occupational Therapy 66.6 (2012): 718-26. Web. 11 July 2015.
  16. Graham, S., Harris, K. R., Mason, L., Fink-Chorzempa, B., Moran, S., & Saddler, B. (2008). How do primary grade teachers teach handwriting? A national survey. Reading and Writing, 21(1), 49-69.
  17. Sudsawad, P., C. A. Trombly, A. Henderson, and L. Tickle-Degnen. “The Relationship Between the Evaluation Tool of Children’s Handwriting and Teachers’ Perceptions of Handwriting Legibility.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 55.5 (2001): 518-23. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.
  18. Collmer, K.  Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation:  A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists.  2016 ed. Waymart, PA:  Universal Publishing, 2016. Print.

Author: otchic

Hi! I am a pediatric occupational therapist with a passion for handwriting! I have dedicated my practice to the assessment and remediation of children's handwriting skills and the education of teachers and therapists in handwriting development and remedial strategies.

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