Talking about pencil grips may seem quaint now that we’re all nimbly texting and completing our patient forms and job applications online.

But there are still plenty of settings — school among them — where knowing how to hold and use a pencil can improve the legibility of your writing and the health of your hand.

The ideal pencil grip allows you to remain stable and flexible at the same time. The outer portion of your hand acts as a base to steady your stroke, and the thumb and fingers coordinate to make fluid, precise movements.

That balance can prove tricky for young children or people with certain health conditions.

Your hand is incredibly complex. It contains 34 muscles and 27 bones, along with numerous nerves, tendons, ligaments, and an ample blood supply — all working together every time you dribble a basketball or thread a needle.

When you write or draw, the muscles in your fingers, hands, wrists, and arms contract and extend to move the pencil across the writing surface.

Two forms of sensory feedback control your writing or drawing:

  • Your vision. It allows you to see what you’re putting on the writing surface.
  • Proprioception. This is your mind’s ability to sense where your body parts are located. Proprioception also helps you feel how tightly you’re gripping your pencil, and it helps you anticipate and direct your pencil in the direction you want it to move. That moment-to-moment feedback makes the intricate set of motions possible.

Most people use one of four common pencil grips when writing:

Dynamic tripod

This grasp is the one many teachers actively promote.

In the dynamic tripod grip, the thumb and forefinger act like pincers, gripping the barrel of the pencil near its tip. The third finger acts like a support, bracing the forefinger as it moves. The fourth and fifth fingers act as a stabilizing base on the writing surface.

Lateral tripod

The second most common grip pattern involves the thumb and first two fingers, like the dynamic tripod. The difference is that the thumb crosses the barrel of the pencil, clamping it to the forefinger.

Sometimes, the thumb even wraps over the forefinger with this grip. Because of its position, the thumb isn’t involved in manipulating the pencil to form letters. The fourth and fifth fingers brace the outside part of the hand.

Dynamic quadrupod

With this grip pattern, the thumb and the first three fingers are used to grip the pencil. Only the pinky finger and the outside portion of the hand provide stability. The thumb doesn’t cross over. It assists the other three fingers in directing the pencil.

Lateral quadrupod

In a lateral quadrupod grip, the thumb wraps across the barrel of the pencil, and the pencil rests on the top of the ring finger. The fingers work together to direct the pencil, and the thumb acts primarily to hold the pencil in place against the forefinger.

With both lateral grips, the muscles of the wrist and forearms are more active in creating letters and shapes.

Despite the fact that many teachers routinely instruct students to use the dynamic tripod grip, believing it produces the best results, research has shown that all four grips produce equally legible handwriting. All four grips allowed students to write at around the same speed.

A 2012 study of 120 fourth graders concluded that speed and legibility were roughly equal for all four grip styles. Researchers recommended that occupational therapists reconsider the need to change lateral or quadrupod grip patterns.

A 2001 study found that grasp style didn’t cause any legibility or speed problems, even on longer writing tasks.

Experts at the Handedness Research Institute recommend that left-handed students change their pencil grip and paper position for more efficient writing.

Try holding the pencil further up the barrel — around a 1 1/2 inch from the pencil point. A higher hold on the pencil will allow writers to see what they’re writing.

Another recommendation is to tilt the writing surface in the opposite direction, so that it follows the natural line of the writer’s left arm. That angle should help the student see their writing without hooking their left hand around and down.

Do some grip styles make you push down harder on the writing surface? The answer seems to be no.

A 2013 study involving 74 fourth grade students measured two different kinds of force: grip force, which is the pressure you put on the barrel of your writing tool with your fingertips, and axial force, which is the downward pressure you exert on the pencil point as it moves across the writing surface.

Researchers found that there was no significant difference in either kind of force among the four patterns.

If you find that you just naturally snap pencil points or clutch your pen in a death grip, you may want to ease up. A too-tight pencil grasp can lead to writer’s cramp.

When children ages 3 to 5 first pick up pencils and crayons, many grab them with their whole hand. The writing tool rests right in the center of the palm.

Some occupational therapists see this primitive grip as a natural part of fine motor skill development. It usually transitions into one of the four mature grips as children become more experienced.

Some experts are concerned that with increased use of technology, kids are arriving at school with weaker hands and underdeveloped fine motor skills.

exercises to help strengthen pencil grip

If you want to build skill, dexterity, and strength, try these simple at-home exercises:

  • Use a spray bottle.
  • Use child-safe scissors to cut construction paper or fabric.
  • Pick up small objects with tongs or clothespins.
  • Paint on vertical or horizontal surfaces.
  • Tear paper into small pieces to make mosaics.
  • Play with modeling clay.
  • String large wooden beads onto shoelaces.

Most pencil grip research focuses on handwriting, not drawing. However, many artists have reported that varying your pencil grip allows you greater creative freedom.

For example, using an overhand grip, in which the length of your forefinger runs along the top of your pencil, will allow you to shade. Artists also advocate a relaxed underhand grip — the tripod, flipped upside down — which can yield a looser, more casual sketch.

If you’re moving your child away from a primitive palmar grip and toward a mature grip, you could try using a short pencil, which isn’t conducive to a palmar grip.

You could also tuck a folded tissue under the fourth and fifth fingers, asking your child to hold it there while they pick up a pencil to write or draw. Having to keep those fingers bent will encourage the dynamic tripod stance.

If your child is having a difficult time establishing a mature pencil grasp or is using an inefficient grip — for example, one where the pencil extends up through the web between first and second fingers — a commercial pencil grip may help train the fingers into the desired position.

Some grips are flexible, containing one, two, or three pockets for your fingertips. Some chunky, ergonomic varieties slide onto the barrel of the pencil and are notched where your fingers should be placed.

And still others offer elastic bands in a figure-eight shape, where the small end of the band wraps around the pencil tip and the larger end loops around your wrist.

Most of these devices are meant for short-term use while a child is learning, but adults with arthritis may also find them useful.

Next steps if a child is having trouble writing

Often, kids naturally outgrow gripping and handwriting issues. But, sometimes trouble with writing signals an underlying condition like ADHD or dyspraxia. If you’re concerned, you can find help here:

  • Meet with the school psychologist. Some are trained in testing for learning disabilities, and if your child goes to a public school, this testing may be free.
  • Talk to your pediatrician. Your child’s doctor can do a neurological exam to see whether there’s a medical basis for the difficulty.
  • Meet with an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists specialize in life skills training, and one who works with children can help retrain any patterns or habits that are making handwriting harder.

While there’s no evidence linking your pencil grasping style to your personality type, how you hold your pencil and how your handwriting looks may tell you something about your overall health.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) says your handwriting could indicate that you’ve had a stroke or trauma. People with Parkinson’s disease often begin writing very small letters — so tiny they can’t read what they’ve written.

Problems with writing often fall under the umbrella term dysgraphia. If a child has dysgraphia, it may be because another health issue is present.

If an adult demonstrates dysgraphia, it may be caused by Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, cerebral palsy, or another condition that affects proprioception or motor skills.

When young children first begin to use writing tools, they may clutch pencils or crayons in a fist-like grip. That primitive technique usually matures into one of four grip types: dynamic tripod, dynamic quadrupod, lateral tripod, or lateral quadrupod.

For many years, writing instructors believed that the dynamic tripod was preferable, but research now shows that any of the four most common grip types is equally likely to produce legible handwriting at about the same speed.

If you or your child is having difficulty with pencil grip, there are professionals like occupational therapists who can help, exercises you can do to strengthen your hands, and a number of ergonomic grips that can train your fingers into the desired stance.