I have blogged a great deal about all of the things that you can do to prepare children to become successful writers. I think our aim should always be not just to get children writing, but to get children wanting to write. It is undoubtedly true (especially for some boys) That without the will they will struggle to master the skill! But often how we approach the teaching of writing doesn't take 'will' into account. It seems to be all about the end result and not the process.
The stages of physical writing development can be tricky and different children show different levels of dexterity at different times.
When it comes to 'writing' as opposed to 'mark making' I think one of the trickiest times is when children have moved away from palm gripping their pencil and have started to employ a version of a tripod grip
This boy had a version of an inverted tripod grip with two fingers in front and two behind. His thumb is acting like a pivot.
This is more like an expanded tripod where the fingers are spread down the length of the pencil. The thumb is used as a 'clamp' and also a pivot. This child however, has created a funky little grip of their own using their little finger!
Another example of an inverted tripod grip.
This is usually around the same time that children are beginning to link sounds to letters and starting to use their manual dexterity to record those letter sounds as writing. The problem that we face is that the more opportunities that children have to 'write' using an incorrect or mis-formed grip the more their brain gets programmed to always form the letter shapes this way. In this instance, practise definitely makes imperfect!
As we all know (from bitter experience) once a child has learnt to form letters incorrectly, unteaching them and re-teaching them is a very difficult task.
How we try and help children to improve their letter formation is CRUCIAL and if we go about it the wrong way it can put them off writing altogether.
THE biggest inhibitor to attainment in any area of education is self esteem. With high self esteem anything is possible with low self esteem, nothing is worth trying. Just putting pencil to paper can be challenging enough for some children, but to then tell them that the way they are doing it is wrong can be the final nail in the writing coffin!
One of the most common ways to help children to improve the way in which they hold their pencil is to use either a large triangular shaped pencil or a triangular moulded grip. I have had a difficult relationship with both of these methods over the years (and limited success).
The reason that I have found that they have limited impact is because how children hold their pencil has got more to do with their brain and their unconscious mind than it has their fingers.
You can send a group of children to 'The Sunshine Room' with 'Mrs Smith' every day to practise their handwriting and they will sit with her and hold their pencils in a wonderful triangulated grip and write beautifully but do they ever transfer those lovely writing skills into their classroom work? No, not very often.
That is because when they are thinking about writing and only writing in a small group with an adult then that is all their brain has to focus on so they can do it. When they are back in the classroom and thinking about what they are going to write and where on the page they are going to start and how to spell whatever it is they have to spell, the handwriting bit of their brain switches back into 'autopilot' and their grip reverts back to the one they learnt in the first place. The one that is most familiar.
Sorry, I seemed to come over all Paul McKenna then!
In that respect a triangular pencil or a triangular grip doesn't help as their fingers just 'shift' around it.
The other reason that I have not had much success with the above is that it is hard to make them feel like a desirable commodity rather than a 'something you need to have because you are not a very good writer'.
My youngest son is not only a boy but is also left handed and has hyper mobility which means that he has extremely flexible joints (he can bend his fingers backward and get them to touch his arm! Urgh!)
His left handedness and his hyper mobility meant that he struggled with writing both in terms of letter formation, orientation and speed. The older he got, the more of an issue this became as the expectation for volume and speed became greater.
I cannot tell you how devastated he was in Year Two, in front if the whole class, to be presented with… 'a pencil from Reception to use until your writing gets neater'… While the rest of his group had their skinny black and yellow striped pencils he was being asked to write with a 'chubby' triangulated pencil and if that wasn't bad enough, it had come all the way from Reception.
I would like to think that that was done with all of the best intentions but the effects of that one incident on his self esteem with regards to how he sees himself as a writer are still evident now, two years later and I suspect it will stay with him for a great deal longer.
I know he is not alone in that sort of experience, I also know that it is not always easy to make a pencil grip into this season's latest must have, but surely it is worth having a go!
So, here are my top three most successful tried and tested pencil grips. They work so well because they support a triangulation in the grip but also stop the fingers from automatically moving when the brain switches to autopilot. You have to physically manipulate your fingers out of the grip before you can move them and that is enough to remind your brain (in less than a millisecond) to keep them there.
I have found that around 3 weeks of continual use in every piece of writing does the trick.
One important thing to remember is that for children who are used to writing in a particular way, changing their grip can be uncomfortable, cause muscle ache and just feel generally wrong! So, ALWAYS significantly decrease the amount that you are expecting them to write. The focus for a while, until they get the hang of the grip, is going to be quality of letter formation not content of writing. It is a short term loss for a long term gain.
In at Number Three – a bit of loo roll!
This is a little bit of magic that I have had great success with, especially when working with older children. If you want an alternative to loo roll then I have also used small character rubbers like Ben 10 etc.
You 'grip' your small ball or folded bit of tissue in your last two fingers first and then pick up your pencil with the remaining three fingers with a triangulating grip. Simple!
In at Number Two - The Cyber Shield (real name Crossover Grip Ergonomic Writing Aid!)
This one looks like something you might see in Captain America or The Avengers. It is very straight forward to use and comes in loads of colours including a metallic version. Although it holds the fingers snugly it does allow for some free movement, so keep an eye out for strays!
In at Number One – The Claw (real name The Claw!)
This is my favourite, although with some children you need to really sell it well. The children have to put their fingers and thumb into the pockets so there is little chance of them moving once they are in position. There is still lots of flexibility so that their fingers won't feel 'trapped' but it also keeps them where you want them.
Again, lots of colours available. I have even been known to attach stick on plastic nails to increase desirability!
- Make sure that children are ready for a grip before you give them one.
- Too early can be as bad as too late.
- If they are still palm gripping they are nowhere near.
- Once that pencil begins to make a journey out from the palm and down the fingers, that is a good indicator that their grip is changing.
More than anything else, make them feel special. There is nothing wrong with feeling 'unique' as long as you feel unique in a positive way!
The other keys to letter formation success are consistency, volume and time. Use your grip EVERY time you write. REDUCE the volume of writing that you expect and SET a time frame. Look at it like an intervention. After around 3 continual school weeks, have a try without and see how you are getting on. When the use of a grip just goes on indefinitely then it gets forgotton about, becomes inconsistent and bad habits creep in.
Did I mention make it special? Have I already made that point?
As always, if you know of any others that work – send them over.