What is a Functional Pencil Grasp

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Ohh, pencil grasp. This is one of the possibly most discussed concern when it comes to handwriting issues. School-based occupational therapists know that pencil grasp is one of those topics that come up so often. The question that often comes up is whether a pencil grasp is functional or if it’s one that should be addressed through fine motor work, strengthening, or possibly OT interventions. Today, we’re talking about all things functional pencil grasp and what exactly makes up a functional pencil grasp.

Functional Pencil Grasp or Inefficient Pencil Grasp

A quick guide to understanding pencil grasp and exactly what a functional pencil grasp is

First, let’s talk about what it is that makes up a functional pencil grasp. A functional grasp is one in which the writer uses a pencil both efficiently and effectively. A functional grasp is one that the student is able to write without several big issues.

When a student writes with a pencil, they may not use the clear-cut tripod grasp. The student may write all of the letters and numbers in a clear and legible manner, but hold the pencil with a really awkward and strange positioning. The pencil grasp might not look like a traditional tripod grasp or modified tripod grasp. The child may use three or four, or even five fingers on their pencil, yet write in a way that is actually legible and time efficient. A grasp might look really out of place in the classroom, but be able to read their writing later when they come back to read over their notes.

A functional pencil grasp can exist with one or more of the aspects which are considered inefficient, yet the written work is still legible. When a grasp is legible and efficient, it is considered functional.

Many (many) of us have unique and very functional pencil grasps. The issue is when a quirky grip on the pencil becomes a cause for illegibility, fatigue, joint strain, or other concern.  In those cases, a grasp should be addressed. 

Remember that a functional pencil grasp is the one we want to see. A functional pencil grasp might look like various things. Every child may have different tendencies when it comes to “functional” 

Functional means the student can hold the pencil, write with legible handwriting, and doesn’t have joints that are hyperextended or otherwise inefficient in joint positioning. Fatigue and endurance play a part in a functional pencil grasp.

Functional grasp means the child can perform the strokes that make up letters and numbers without pain, low endurance, misaligned joints, or with proximal motions of the arm.

Inefficient Pencil Grasp- An inefficient pencil grasp is one which is not functional. There are several components that indicate an inefficient grasp, and a child does not need to present with all of these components to utilize an inefficient pencil grasp. Some examples of an inefficient pencil grasp include:

  • A pencil grasp that uses the power fingers as opposed to the action fingers
  • Joints that are hyper-extended or bent back beyond normal range of motion
  • Joints that demonstrate extreme pressure on the pencil and appear lightened in skin tone due to so much pressure being used through the joints (See below)
  • A pencil that is moved by proximal movements, such as shoulder, forearm, or wrist mobility
  • A pencil grasp that does not utilize separation of the sides of the hand (the Power Fingers are not bent into the palm to support the Action Fingers)
  • Poor distal mobility of the fingers when moving the pencil (See below)
  • A “hooked wrist” or wrist flexion when writing
  • Inefficient writing speed, or a pencil speed that is laborious
  • Excessive pencil pressure leading to dark pencil writing that is difficult to read
  • Fatigue or pain when writing
What is a functional pencil grasp and how does that impact handwriting in kids

Each of the items discussed in this list could be covered in a whole article of their own. Let’s cover a few of these topics here.

Handwriting Speed- Some research has found that there is no impact between various types of mature pencil grasps as they relate to handwriting legibility and speed. What this tells us is that tells us that a child using a mature pencil grasp has options! There doesn’t need to be a strict focus on the tripod grasp if a child is using a modified tripod or quadrupod grasp. (Schwellnus, H. et al., 2012) What does come into play in regards to handwriting speed is a need to work on letter formation, transitioning or primitive pencil grasps, or other underlying concerns. Some of these issues might be proximal weakness, sensory processing issues (that present as pencil pressure, or writing very heavily which can slow down handwriting speed), or other concerns.

Pencil pressure- Sometimes, children hold their pencil very tightly.  They press so hard on the paper, that lines are very dark when writing.  The pencil point breaks.  When erasing, the pencil marks don’t completely erase, and the paper is torn.  The non-dominant, assisting hand moves the paper so roughly that the paper crumbles.  When turning pages in a notebook, the pages tear or crumble.  Movements are not fluid or efficient.  Handwriting takes so much effort, that the child becomes fatigued, frustrated, and sore.  It may take so much effort to write a single word, that handwriting is slow and difficult.  It’s messy. It’s not functional handwriting. 

Other times, the pencil pressure is just too light. Kids may write so lightly that you can’t read the overall writing sample. Other times, you can’t discern between certain letters. Maybe you notice that the writing pressure is just so light that the child’s hand or sleeve smudges the pencil lines and the writing sample is totally not functional or legible. Some students vary in their pencil pressure. They may start out writing at a legible pencil pressure, but as they write their hand get tired and with that hand fatigue, the writing gets lighter and lighter.

Here is more information on pencil pressure in handwriting and how to help with creative activities.

Pencil control/Poor distal mobility/Poor proximal stability- Writing with proximal mobility versus using the fingers to manipulate and move the pencil is one aspect that makes up an inefficient grasp. In order to demonstrate distal mobility, proximal support and stability is needed.

Functional pencil grasp is a skill kids need for efficient and legible handwriting

Other pencil grasp red flags might include:

  • Writing with a flexed wrist
  • Closed thumb web-space
  • Hyperextended joints or white knuckles from the strain of holding the pencil
  • Holding the pencil with a full fist
  • Illegible writing
  • Hand fatigue when writing
  • Extension of the pinkie finger or ring finger when writing

As discussed above, some of these “red flags” may be noted in a child that writes with a functional manner. That is, the grasp appears awkward, et the letters and words are legible and the speed is efficient.

Here is more information on pencil control and distal mobility in handwriting.

Here are games to improve pencil grasp.

Kinds of Functional Pencil Grasps

Static Tripod Grasp-Between about 3.5-4 years of age, a static tripod grasp develops. This grasp permits the child to hold the writing utensil with the thumb and index finger with the pencil shaft resting on the DIP joint of the middle finger. Mobility of the pencil occurs from larger joints while the fingers remain static. The hand moves as one unity with this grasp. Sometimes, the wrist is positioned in a bent or “flexed” position, but this graspand it’s positioning are typically developing in the 3.5-4 year old child.

Dynamic Tripod Grasp- This grasp allows the student to write with precision using the thumb and index finger in a pinching position at the end of the pencil. The pencil rests on the DIP joint of the middle finger, and the ring and pinky fingers are tucked into the hand, or palm for a separation of the sides of the hand. Mobility of the pencil occurs by motions through the thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger. This grasp t[ically presents with a slightly extended wrist, and an open thumb webspace. This pencil grasp typically develops between 4.5 and 5 years.

Static Quadripod/Quadrupod Grasp- This grasp is similar to the static tripod grasp, but the student holds the pencil with the ring finger on the shaft of the pencil.

Other Functional Pencil Grasps- There are many other grasps which can be deemed functional. Some of those include versions of thumb wrap grasps, index finger wrapped grasps, inter-digital grasps, and many others. The most important thing to remember is the “functional” part of a grasp. As log as the child is writing in a way that is functional for their needs, the grasp is typically good to go!

Here are fun fine motor activities to improve pencil grasp toward a tripod or dynamic tripod grasp.

How to develop a functional Pencil grasp

Want to know how to fix a problem with pencil grasps? Need help knowing where to start when it comes to immature pencil grasps or a child hating to write because their hand hurts? The Pencil Grasp Challenge in open for you! In this free, 5 day email series, you’ll gain information, resources, specific activities designed to promote a functional, efficient pencil grasp.

The pencil grasp challenge is a free, 5 day mini course and challenge. During the course of five days, I’ll be teaching everything you need to know about the skills that make up a functional pencil grasp. You’ll learn what’s going on behind the inefficient and just plain terrible pencil grasps you see everyday in the classroom, clinic, or home. Along with loads of information, you’ll gain quick, daily activities that you can do today with a kiddo you know and love. These are easy activities that use items you probably already have in your home right now.

Besides learning and gaining a handful (pun intended) of fun ideas to make quick wins in pencil grasp work, you’ll gain:

  • 5 days of information related to pencil grasp, so you know how to help kids fix an immature pencil grasp.
  • Specific activities designed to build a functional pencil grasp.
  • Free printable handouts that you can use to share with your team or with a parent/fellow teachers.
  • You’ll get access to printable challenge sheets, and a few other fun surprises.
  • And, possibly the best of all, you’ll get access to a secret challengers Facebook group, where you can share wins, chat about all things pencil grasp, and join a community of other therapists, parents and teachers working on pencil grasp issues.

Click here to join the Pencil Grasp Challenge.

free pencil grasp challenge

Schwellnus, H., Carnahan, H., Kushki, A., Polatajko, H., Missiuna, C., & Chau, T. (2013). Writing forces associated with four pencil grasp patterns in grade 4 children. The American journal of occupational therapy : official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association67(2), 218–227. doi:10.5014/ajot.2013.005538

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

What is a functional pencil grasp and how does that impact handwriting in kids