What does the way a student grips a pencil tell us about education?
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Go find a school age kid. Your own child will do just fine. If you don’t have one in your house, find another youngster somewhere. Pick someone not in early elementary, but a student maybe in fifth through any grade. Hand them a pencil and ask them to write their name down, a few lines, or dictate something to them. Don’t bother about what they’ve written. Look at their pencil grip. Honestly, take a good look.
We usually pay absolutely no attention to how someone grips a pen or pencil. It’s amazing and I’m not being sarcastic here. If you walk into any classroom there are more different pencil grips than there is color of hair, size of feet, or almost any other mark of difference. Some grip that utensil like they’re trying to throw a knuckleball, some like a dagger, some like a fork, and some like a paintbrush. There is no standard, it’s simply gone.
When did this all start and does it mean anything? With the help of an occupational therapist staff member I took a short look. There are standard pencil grips, non-standard but efficient, and finally, inefficient. This doesn’t have to do with handwriting (meaning old-fashioned penmanship), but it does play a role. Students tend to have adequate or inadequate penmanship regardless of how they grip a pen. I can’t decipher most doctors’ writing, but the next time I go to the doctor’s I’m going to check out his or her pen grip just for a laugh. I look at students writing and some is simply beautiful, some are completely indecipherable.
Most students have adopted a kind of “borrow and blend” script that works for them. A little bit of cursive, some printing here and there, a couple of made up curlicues, it becomes their handwriting. I have pretty standard handwriting but I’ve had students, on more than one occasion, tell me that they couldn’t read it because they don’t read cursive. What! Are you kidding me? It wasn’t that my “s” was weird, or my “e” was closed, they just can’t read cursive. Done. Finished. Did they ever get a birthday card from grandma or grandpa and simply hand it to their parent and say: “Mom, will you read this to me?” (This doesn’t really surprise me because I have 8th graders who cannot tell time on a machine that has numbers arranged in a circle with the 12 at the top, with an hour hand and a minute hand. You know, it’s called a clock. Can I blame the kid? They just never learned how.)
When I was in school there was no way you were getting out of second grade if you didn’t hold that pencil correctly. I don’t think it would have mattered if you were missing a finger, you’d still be made to hold that damn pencil correctly. The alphabet was prominently displayed on the board and you had to match it. Or do it over again. And you practiced it and practiced it and practiced it. It was like the exit ticket to the next grade.
Here’s what I do believe. The pencil grip must not be important to teachers and schools and curricula. If you’re fighting a lot of battles, like trying to get kids to read and competing with the South Koreans over Math scores, then the hell with the pencil grip. Maybe in the future people won’t bother with pens and pencils at all. I don’t mean in 10 years, but maybe in 50 or 100. Hell, 50 years ago most people couldn’t type. It was a definite and specific skill that came with taking classes and practice and practice and more practice. Just like handwriting. Words per minute meant something. Now, kids can text before they enter school, maybe before they walk. Text is no longer a noun, it’s a verb, like breathe and eat. With the use of keyboarding skills, everyone can type. Now, you can talk to your phone and it will text for you. Why bother writing at all?
Pencil grip probably doesn’t say too much about the individual, except to point out another very real display of how different we all are. It does say something about education. What else have we given up along the way?
Photo credit: Flickr / lindaaslund, pencil grip example photos courtesy of Carl Bosch