Entries by Nicky Parr

Perfect…Says Who?

“ k can be quite a tricky letter,” I explained in one of my feedback videos. “Let’s have a look at how you’re forming it now, then I’ll show you three ways I’ve found other people like and that work well when you want to join up.” As you can see (and as is often […]

Perfect :)

“I’ve hung Poppy’s lead up there, is that okay?” asked my brother. We’d just got back from a lovely walk and he’d headed into the house before me while I’d stopped to chat to a neighbour. “That’s perfect,” I replied. “Thank you.” Perfect … It’s a word I use quite often I’ve realised and, given last […]

Perfection Perception Perspectives

Laura’s Story Note: Laura isn’t one person. She’s an amalgamation of people I’ve been privileged to listen to, chat with or support over many years. Laura represents their ‘perfection perception perspectives’. The experiences are real. Through Laura I hope to give you an opportunity to think, reflect and understand that, for some who appear ‘lucky’ […]

We Need to Talk About Pen Licences

‘All writing must be on the line. All handwriting must be the correct size and not too big or too small. All handwriting must be joined up where appropriate. To be awarded a pen licence, the child MUST produce at least a week’s worth of work in their literacy book that fulfils all of the criteria above.’ And […]

Parent Pressures

“We’re trying to remember the real positives. After…oh on Friday…when you said can you talk? I thought, I can’t – I think I’ll just be in tears. And it’s only handwriting. I thought, ugh I can’t even talk to you about handwriting… I’m too emotional about it…” I was on a video call with Abbie […]

High Expectations

Ofsted inspectors love high expectations.  I’ve noticed this. I’ve read through enough reports to get a sense of how they feel about handwriting and presentation. There are way too many to share of course but I’ve picked a few comments out of the hat: ‘Teachers do not have consistently high expectations of pupils’ writing. As […]

Judgement Day

“Excuse me!” She ran down the corridor after me. “I just wanted to ask, if you have time, could you come back and show me your handwriting please? It’s just I’ve never met a handwriting specialist before and I’d really like to see your writing.” And there it was. Impending judgement. My stomach dropped a little […]

Handwriting Hangups

Sometimes people are surprised I called the business ‘Better Handwritten’ and not ‘Better Handwriting’. It might not seem that important but there’s a reason. It’s because our work is about so much more than the outcome of neater handwriting. Clients do get that, but they get so much more than that.  I see them start […]

Types of Pen Hold and Managing Change

“Nicola, can you stay behind at the end of the lesson please,” said Mr Cowan my first-year secondary English teacher (it was before the term ‘Year 7’ existed).

I rolled my eyes…internally. I was usually only internally rebellious.

Believe it or not I was quite naughty at school. Not a lot, just a bit. I was one of those students who managed to get away with things because I was generally cheerful and helpful. The trouble with that though, was that it was usually me who was commissioned to make an excuse to leave the room and fill up the party-cracker water guns, or crawl around picking up paper cannon balls to re-stock our troop’s arsenal. 

Anyway, I assumed I was probably going to be reprimanded for some such nonsense, but to my horror Mr Cowan announced, “I’ve noticed your pen hold is wrong and I’ve put you down to attend a group each week to correct it.”

I was mortified!

I’d always prided myself on having nice handwriting and was at that exciting stage where I was experimenting with developing my own cool style. I’d never even considered how I held my pen! How dare he! A wave of heat flooded my face and I found myself struggling to hold back tears of embarrassment and rage. 

I attended one session. I was moody, sulky and stubbornly refused to engage. The internal rebel stepped out onto the stage and blinked in the spotlights.

Mr Cowan gave up and we moved on. 

This is NOT how to manage or affect changing a pen hold. 


Looking back years later, a teacher myself, I imagined Mr C had been on a course. He’d probably been told that the tripod grip was the one and only correct grip (he was misinformed) and had honourably set about fixing those of us whose pen holds were incorrect. I know he had the right intentions; he just went about it the wrong way.

And no, I’m not revealing my pen hold yet; it’s a cliff-hanger, you’ll have to wait til the end!


Before I outline key points to be aware of when supporting someone to change their grip, let’s look at types of pen hold. I’ll only cover some common ones so that I (hopefully) don’t lose your attention! Please bear in mind there are a range of variations.

Considering these will help make sense of why awkward holds develop, why there are benefits to modifying some holds and why others are absolutely fine to leave alone.

Firstly, let me remind you of the Better Handwritten goals I shared in Part I of this blog last week.

When thinking about a person and their handwriting:

  1. we want them to feel good about it.
  2. we want it to be legible (to themselves and to others)
  3. we want it to be useful (different handwriting for different purposes)

For some people, pen hold impacts negatively on these goals because it:

  • is painful (the kind of pain that you get used to and grudgingly accept or avoid encountering whenever possible)

  • causes frustration (for example with smudging, when work is constantly spoiled and writing hand stained) which leads to stress

  • draws unwanted attention and comments about looking awkward or different (causing self-consciousness and anxiety)

  • constantly interrupts their view of what’s been written, which affects immediate review and reflection

  • affects outcomes (an inefficient grip blocks finger movements; this impacts on ability to write at speed, which in turn can impact on school work and exam performance)


So how does an individual’s pen hold evolve in the first place?

Put simply, there’s a process to work through.

Pencils and pens are tools; from an early age we became aware of them by observing others using them. As with learning many early skills, we copied – based on our perception and ability at the time.

As young children that probably meant picking up a crayon in our little hand. We weren’t aware of the details of finger position and anyway, didn’t have fine motor control yet, so we adopted a fist grip. 

A fist grip uses a whole arm movement… try miming it like I just did!

 

Around age 1 – 2

Gradually we discovered control was easier with our palm facing down and forefinger on top. We could control this from the elbow so it was a little less tiring.

 

Around age 2 – 3

Over time, as muscles in the wrist and fingers strengthened, our hand began to turn to the side which meant we could control movement from the wrist and relax the arm.  We had to adjust our fingers to balance the pencil.

 

Age 4+

This seems to be the point where some creative positioning develops which unfortunately, if unnoticed and left unchecked, results in an awkward and often uncomfortable hold becoming automated.


What we want is an efficient grip that allows distal control (the ability to move the muscles of the fingers separately).

This brings us to the most effective pen holds: the dynamic tripod and quadrupod grips:

 

The dynamic tripod hold has 3 digits in contact with the pen
(thumb, forefinger and middle finger)

 

The dynamic quadrupod has 4 digits in contact
(thumb, forefinger, middle finger and ring finger)

There are also ‘lateral’ versions of these grips where the thumb crosses the pencil, holding it in place but still allowing effective finger movements. These are generally fine too:

 

Lateral tripod and lateral quadrupod holds


Here are key points to give some careful thought to when reviewing a child’s grip and managing change:

  • there is a developmental sequence to an individual’s pen hold evolving

  • not all children will naturally evolve an efficient grip

  • an efficient grip allows effective movement of the finger muscles; an inefficient grip restricts and blocks finger movement

  • adults may need to intervene and support change; it is crucial that teachers and parents understand how to help and work together

  • change is often met with emotional resistance; this is normal and to be expected. If this is not managed effectively however, the upset and damage caused may result in a negative association with writing and damaged self-esteem

  • inefficient pen holds should not be ignored and change shouldn’t be abandoned when resistance is met (but it must be managed compassionately and with confidence)


Mr Cowan gave up.

Amy gave up (Blog Part I).

Adam’s primary school teacher gave up (Blog Part I).

Not because they didn’t care, but because they were worried they would do more damage than good. They didn’t have the knowledge and understanding of the process of change or strategies to manage it effectively and confidently.

That’s why I’m currently developing Better Handwritten’s

One month to Transforming Pen Hold

I want to share my knowledge and experience with you and others who will benefit. 

If you’d like to be contacted when the guide is released please complete the contact form in the website menu.

 

And no, I hadn’t forgotten… I’ll finish with the big reveal!

I have a DYNAMIC QUADRUPOD hold 🙂

(so it didn’t need changing anyway – but Mr Cowan didn’t know that back then)

 

Can and should pen hold be corrected?

“I have a girl in my class whose pencil hold is wrong,” Amy told me. “I tried to change it by putting a grip on her pencil. I didn’t realise but she was going home and crying! Her mum came in and was really angry with me because her handwriting looked worse, she was starting to refuse to write and didn’t want to come to school. The parent told me categorically I was to stop making her daughter change. So I stopped.”

A person looking at the camera Description automatically generated

No winner here was there? 

I felt for Amy; she felt undermined as a teacher – her confidence was knocked. Without support on how to go about it differently I’m not sure she would ever have attempted to correct a pupil’s pen hold again.

I felt for the parent. It’s not easy when your child gets upset and goes from enjoying school to not wanting to go. A child’s emotional behaviour can trigger an equally emotional and defensive response in a parent.

I felt for the child who now had an awareness there was something ‘wrong’ with their pen hold. It was received as criticism and she was offended because she had thought her handwriting was nice and that was all that mattered. She didn’t understand WHY she was being asked to change.

So nothing had changed with this pupil’s pen hold but everyone was worse off.

Believe it or not, changing pen hold isn’t actually that hard. But, as you can see from this scenario, knowing how to help is essential and managing the change effectively is the challenge! It’s also the key to success.

I’ll share my thoughts and experience on managing change in Part II next week.

So does pen hold really matter anyway? 

Was Amy right or wrong to try and change it? 

Was the parent right or wrong to refuse to allow change? 

Isn’t it better to leave well alone?

For me, the answer is ‘It depends’. 

I’ll explain.

I have 3 clear goals when I think about a person and their handwriting:

  1. I want them to feel good about it.
  2. I want it to be legible (to themselves and to others)
  3. I want it to be useful (which means different handwriting for different purposes, ranging from ‘just about readable notes’ to ‘very best, I want to impress’)

Pen hold has a key part to play in achieving each of these goals, so if an awkward grip impacts on any or all of them I think the individual should be supported with change…

  • even though they are likely to feel emotional resistance to begin with 

  • even though it feels physically uncomfortable for a while 

  • even though they may revert to their previously automated hold when working memory is busy with other thoughts

These experiences are normal. The discomfort will begin to evaporate once the brain and hand adjust to the idea and different sensory feedback.

Just to be clear, I don’t think anyone should ever be forced to change; they should be supported to understand the long term benefits and process involved so that they actually want change and make a personal choice to engage. Motivation is fundamental to success.

If pen hold in no way affects the 3 goals then I don’t see there’s any reason to change.

Let’s use someone’s actual experience to think a bit more about what the goals mean in context:

Adam’s story                                  

A person posing for the camera Description automatically generated

Adam is an NQT and during the Autumn Term was struggling to teach handwriting to his Year 2 class. He’d had no input on how to teach handwriting during his 3-year degree. He had an awkward pen hold and handwriting he felt embarrassed about and generally tried to hide. In his new teaching role he felt very exposed and stressed about this. His pupils were not making progress with handwriting and this was picked up through book scrutiny as part of the school’s monitoring process.

“When I was in Primary school my teachers told me they’d noticed I was holding my pen wrong. They said they weren’t going to do anything about my grip because they didn’t want to make my handwriting worse and had seen that happen with another child. From that point on I thought I was stuck with the way I gripped my pen, even though it caused me pain in my hand and I would smudge my writing because I would curl my hand round.” (Adam is right-handed)

Note: It is perfectly normal for handwriting to get ‘worse’ during the initial stages of change. That soon improves once the eyes, brain and hand have had time to adjust and coordinate. One of the biggest problems I see is people panicking and giving up too soon.

Now let’s think about the goals:

  1. Did Adam feel good about handwriting?    NO

  • he had suffered for years with pain when writing
  • he was frustrated that his writing smudged
  • he was embarrassed by how his writing looked

  2.  Was his writing legible?

  • at times, with conscious effort and enough time, but not always.
  • often it was smudged.

  3.  Was he finding writing by hand a useful tool? 

  • Adam had really struggled with writing throughout school and university; he still avoided writing where possible so certainly wasn’t using it for a range of purposes. He couldn’t model effectively to his class and this was having a negative impact at the start of his teaching career.

In Adam’s case I felt it was definitely worth changing his pen hold. 

So we did!

For years, since that conversation at Primary School, Adam had believed it wasn’t possible. He was amazed to find he adapted to his new tripod grip in less than a month.

Here are some other ‘Before & After’ photos of pen holds I’ve supported with change over the last month: 

So, ‘Can and should pen hold be corrected?’

‘Yes it can,’ 

and

‘If there are going to be positive long term benefits, yes’.

In reality I often find that teachers and parents recognise when change is needed but don’t know HOW to facilitate that change.

Note: children are often unaware that their pencil hold is an issue because it’s become normalised for them over time.

I’ll talk about this more next Monday (15th June) in Part II when I’ll share my thoughts on:

‘Types of Pen Hold & Managing Change’