3 tricks to help kids learn to hold their pencil correctly

how to hold a pencil

Pencil grip is one of those things that is really hard to re-teach if kids initially learn it incorrectly. Though every child will end up settling on a pencil grip that works best for him or her, introducing the standard “tripod” grasp (pinching with thumb and index finger while resting on middle finger) is a good place to start. However, this can seem virtually impossible when you’re dealing with five- and six-year-olds who don’t even know their left from right, let alone how to divide up their fingers into different positions.

Given the tricky nature of pencil holding — and its impact on kids’ handwriting skills — I thought I’d share a few OT-based tricks so you can help kids learn how to hold their pencil correctly.

Trick #1: Use shorter pencils.
how to hold a pencil
A shorter pencil means less space for cramming in unnecessary fingers. It basically forces kids to pinch with thumb and index finger. This is why the popular curriculum Handwriting Without Tears uses their own brand of short pencils, however, golf pencils work just fine, too. It’s also why occupational therapists often have kids use crayons that have been broken in half if they are having trouble using an age-appropriate grasp. Click here to read more about why kids should use shorter crayons.

Trick #2: Teach them the “pinch and flip”.

If shorter pencils don’t do the trick for your little writer, then teach them the “pinch and flip”. Simply have them pinch the sharpened end of the pencil and then flip it around until it gently rests in the “webspace” (that soft skin between your thumb and index finger) in the ready position. Watch the video below for a less-than-one-minute demonstration and explanation of this trick.


Trick #3: Have them hide something under their last two fingers.
how to hold a pencil
If shorter pencils and the “pinch and flip” don’t work, then try having students hide something under their pinky and ring fingers. These two fingers are supposed to bend toward the palm while the thumb, index, and middle fingers do all the work. However, sometimes kids have a hard time with this because they can’t yet “separate” the two sides of their hand (the pinky side and the thumb side). This trick will take care of that. It really doesn’t matter what they hide under their last two fingers, as long as they can comfortably do so without their fingers bulging out from their hand because the item is too big, or having to squeeze too tightly because it’s too small. Try using a small ball of playdough, cotton ball, marble, bead, crumpled piece of tissue paper, or tiny rubbery toy.

What other tricks have you discovered to help kids hold their pencil correctly?

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48 thoughts on “3 tricks to help kids learn to hold their pencil correctly

  1. Pingback: 3 tricks to help kids learn to hold their pencil correctly | Kids@Play | Scoop.it

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  6. Oh, these are so good! I will post them and pin them! The only one I would add – or would love your tip as well – is that many young children try to write while their hand/arm is suspended above the paper. My tip is offering the idea that “your hand is kind of on vacation when you are drawing/writing so you can just let your hand relax right on the paper!” Cheers.

    • What a cute way to explain it. That attempt at writing with hand/arm suspended above the paper is actually a developmentally appropriate strategy for little ones (like toddlers) while they are still working on developing strength and control in their wrists and fingers. But kids should start using their wrists more as they progress through preschool and Kindergarten in order to have a “dynamic” grasp. One easy suggestion for helping to develop this dynamic wrist movement while grasping the crayon is to have them engage with vertical surfaces such as coloring on easels, the sides of cardboard boxes (could draw a pretend house), using bath tub crayons on the wall during bath time, etc. This will help them start to gain strength and movement while their wrist is bent “backward” in extension and will put them well on their way to being strong writers!

  7. I draw a tiny “magic” dot on their middle finger where the pencil should rest and they have to hide the dot with the pencil. Helps keep that finger under rather than on top.

    • Good question. I have worked with lefties and, though every child is different, lefties are capable of using a nice tripod grasp just like righties. Some kids benefit from adding another finger on top of the pencil to stabilize in a “quadrupod” position. Also, if you rotate the paper so the left corner points up, it will make it easier to write so he doesn’t feel like he has to write with extreme wrist flexion or by raising his hand off the paper. The opposite is true for righties: rotate the paper so the right corner is pointing up, which most kids do naturally anyway. One last thing: pencil smears less than pen, so pencils make for more legible work for lefties who will naturally drag their hand over their writing. Hope that helps!

    • Good question. Though it was long thought that fat crayons were ideal for little developing hands so that they could hold them more easily and develop skill, we (as in, the therapy and teaching community) are actually finding that fat crayons do just the opposite…they don’t challenge kids’ tiny hand muscles, so they aren’t able to develop the strength they need in order isolate those finger and hand muscles to make precise movements needed in pre-writing and writing activities. Think about it: how much hand skill could you develop if you as an adult were coloring or writing with a crayon that was as fat as, say, a paper towel roll? (proportionally speaking :) )

      I actually wrote a post about this when I first started the blog. You can check it out here: http://mamaot.com/2012/04/22/dont-throw-out-your-broken-crayons/

    • Yes, we LOVE tiny pieces of crayon!…and chalk, and eraser, and sponge, and tissue paper. This list goes on. And what a cute name.

      • I also tell my daughter to “pinch it like a crab” and when she’s hooking her index finger over the pencil (which she always wants to do) I tell her that’s not a crab, that’s a seahorse (because he wraps his tail around the seaweed).

  8. I started my daughter out using homemade crayons that are flat-like the heart crayons you see around Valentine’s Day. Works on the same principle as the short pencils-there is no other way to hold them except for the trippod grasp.

  9. Great! There are great crayons that are similar to what you’re talking about. They’re called “rock crayons” and basically look like little pebbles. Many OT clinics have them and you can easily find them online. Here is one link to help you find them on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/9e9f3ad.

  10. Do you have an article or link to talk about why proper grip is so important? I hold my pen the “wrong” way and I remember growing up my mom would try to change my grip. I’ve never understood why it matters.

    • Amber, that is such a great and important question. I also hold my pencil the “wrong” way and actually have vivid memories of my Kindergarten teacher walking over to my table, changing my grip, and walking away…then I switched it back because I liked it better!

      So here’s the deal: we want kids to be able to find a pencil grip that is not only comfortable, but EFFICIENT. The traditional tripod (thumb and finger pinching pencil while middle finger supports it) is often a very efficient grasp. It allows people to write while using an appropriate amount of pressure (being able to generate enough strength to press down on the paper, but not having to press so hard that they rip the paper or fatigue quickly) and it also allows them to write without quickly fatiguing. An “inefficient” grip will cause your hand to cramp up and your hand muscles to get really tired, so you’ll constantly have to be taking breaks and shaking out your hand more frequently than if you held the pencil with a more efficient grasp. Since kids are required to do so much writing in school, it’s important that they develop an efficient and functional grasp from an early age because it’s really difficult to change it once they’re used to it (I’m a perfect example).

      For most people, they find a pencil grasp that works for them and that’s the end of it. But for some kids, the grasp they’re using doesn’t work for them and they end up really struggling in school because of it (they write much slower, their hand fatigues very quickly, etc.). That’s when the grasp is important. Though we are NOT handwriting teachers, OTs can work with kids to address the underlying issues related to their handwriting difficulties, and sometimes grasp and fine motor strength are the culprits (though sometimes it’s other things).

      I’m totally with you: there is no “one way” to hold a pencil and, trust me, I have seen some funky pencil grasps that totally work for people. But it’s all about function, and we want to start kids off on the right foot so they are setting themselves up for handwriting and school success, rather than forming habits that will be really, really hard to break.

      Hope this helps!

      • That totally makes sense. I’ve also noticed that I don’t have particularly neat writing, so I’ve wondered if that was another reason for the traditional tripod grasp (I use my middle two fingers, pressing the pen against my palm, which probably doesn’t give me as much control). So interesting. I will also be teaching my boys “proper” grasp because as you said it is nearly impossible to switch once the habit is formed.

      • I think you and I have a similar grasp. I’ve stuck with mine because I like the way my writing looks when I use it, but I am a fairly slow writer compared to others and my hand gets tired pretty quickly, so if I have to write fast or I have a lot to write (like during an essay test), I usually switch to tripod. And I also make sure to demonstrate tripod when I’m working with kids, too. Best of luck with your boys!

  11. Huh…all this is interesting, especially your replies. I was told that I hold my pencil incorrectly because it rests on my middle finger and creates an indent there. I was told that the pencil is instead supposed to be pinched between the thumb and the middle/fore fingers. I have never been able to successfully do that. Perhaps the problem with my tripod grip is just that I hold too tight then? This is helpful for teaching my daughter though because she naturally does tripod and I kept trying to get her to pinch it like I was told to do.

  12. Thank you for this, I will be trying these with my (almost) 4 year old son. However, he doesn’t put much pressure on the paper while writing so he gets frustrated because it doesn’t look correct. When I help him I talk him through what needs to happen and help his hand put more pressure on the paper while he performs the movements. But I’m not sure if I’m hurting or helping him. He still goes back and forth between hands when doing anything so I’m not sure if that is part of the reason? And it’s the same whether he is writing on a table or vertically against a wall or easel. The utensil (crayon, pencil, dry erase marker, etc) doesn’t seem to make a different either. He also has a difficult time with using scissors still, always wanting to keep his thumb down.

    Any suggestions?

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  14. A way that taught me how to hold a pencil correctly as a child is i used these little rubber molds that slip onto your pens and pencils that were shaped to the form of holding your pencil so it in a way forced you to hold it properly and after writing like that for awhile i naturally held them in that manner.

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  20. Christie,
    Do you have any articles you could direct me to that talk about efficient writing? (I’d take books, too, but articles would be more ideal.) I’m probably going to talk to the curriculum person in our school district about why I think we should include how to hold a pencil in kindergarten and need articles for back up.

    Thanks!

    • I would check the educational standards for Kindergarten first to see what is mentioned about expectations for Kindergarteners & pencil grasp by the end of the Kindergarten year. If it’s mentioned in the standards, then that should be all you need.

  21. I love your blog – such helpful stuff! What about a child who hooks her wrist so that it is flexed when writing? Would writing on a slanted surface help? Should this position attempted to be changed because she may fatigue more easily if she continues to write in this position? Or are there other reasons? Please refer me to any posts you may have done on this! Thanks so much!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, writing on a slanted or vertical surface can place the wrist in a naturally extended position and can help with wrist hooking. How is her pencil grasp and is it just the hooking that is the problem?

      • Thank you for your response! Her grasp seems to be ok…only wrist hooking. But additionally, her handwriting is very illegible – she displays poor control and inconsistent/inefficient formation of letters. So would wrist position be a priority to improve in your opinion?

  22. I have a question about this. I have always held my pencil with four fingers. They tried to teach me how to do the correct hold in school, but it never worked for me and I assumed that it was because I am left-handed and I am pushing the pencil instead of pulling it. Is it bad that I hold pencils/pens incorrectly? Is it harder to do for leftys?

    • Sierra, if your grasp is working for you and you do not experience pain or fatigue, then it is not “wrong”!

  23. I forget where I learned this, but I have the child pretend the fingers and thin are riding in a van. The thumb and index are the adults or mom and dad, and the other fingers are the kids. The adults sit in the front, and the kids sit in the back. Mom and dad sit right next to each other and can kiss, but dad doesn’t sit on mom’s lap (as in thumb wrap). Kid’s mostly really like like this, and respond well to it, and show good carry over.

So, whadya think?