As a school-based occupational therapist, I frequently get asked about grasp patterns. Many parents and teachers are concerned if a student does not demonstrate the “normal” dynamic tripod grasp pattern. However, I often observe in the classrooms and I realized a lot of students (including me) do not use the “normal” tripod grasp. Today, I want to break down the skills needed for handwriting. I also want to review some common pencil grasps and how they compare to the gold standard, dynamic tripod grasp.
Handwriting is an essential life skill to master. However, this skill is very complex and is more than a fine motor task. Other skills that are needed for handwriting include; language, visual perceptual, cognitive, and eye-hand coordination skills. Therefore, if a child has a deficit in any above skill, handwriting may be a challenge. For the purpose of this blog, we are going to look at the motor component of handwriting using evidence-based data from Schwellnus et al. (p. 218-227). This includes the pencil grasp and its effects on grip force, writing pressure, writing speed, and legibility.
The name for a pencil grasp is established by 3 things:
- The position of the thumb
- The number of fingers that contact the pencil
- The position of the finger joints
The dynamic tripod grasp pattern (figure 1, A) offers writers stability through the power side (pinky side) of the hand and mobility with the precision side (thumb, middle and index fingers) of the hand. However, there are 3 more common grasp patterns that are considered “mature” and functional grasp patterns. These include; dynamic quadrupod, lateral tripod and lateral quadrupod. These are demonstrated in the photo below:
This study examined the effects of grip force, writing pressure, writing speed and legibility on 4th grade students during extended handwriting tasks. The study found the following:
- Grip force (how tight the student holds the pencil) did not significantly differ between all 4 grasp patterns
- Writing pressure (how hard the student pushes on the writing surface) did not significantly differ between all 4 grasp patterns.
- Thumb positioning did not impact speed or legibility of handwriting. However, it did impact the writing pressure and grip force when comparing the position of the thumb.
Overall, all 4 grasps were similarly impacted when writing for an extended time (longer than 10 minutes). When children increase their writing speed, they may experience an increase in grip force and writing pressure. This in turn, may impact the legibility of handwriting and cause fatigue. However, the study did not confirm this. The study recommended that occupational therapy services implement strategies and techniques to improve legibility of handwriting through speed and formation of letters, instead of changing a child’s grasp pattern.
Therefore, if your child is struggling with handwriting, remember that handwriting is more than a pencil grasp and other skills may need to be assessed.
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. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67, 218-227. http://dx. doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2013.005538