Children who grip their pens too close to the writing point are likely to be at a disadvantage in examinations, according to the first serious investigation into the way in which writing technique can affect educational achievement dramatically.
The survey of 643 children and adults, aged from pre-school to 40- plus, also suggests that pen-holding techniques have deteriorated sharply over one generation, with teachers now paying far less attention to correct pen grip and handwriting style.
Stephanie Thomas, a learning support teacher whose findings have been published in the British Journal of Special Education, was inspired to investigate this area after she noticed that those pupils who had the most trouble with spelling also had a poor pen grip.
While Ms Thomas could not establish a significant statistical link between pen-holding style and accuracy in spelling, she did find huge differences in technique between the young children and the mature adults, and a definite link between near-point gripping and slow, illegible writing - badly affecting these individuals' prospects in exams. "Speed and legibility are crucial at GCSE and A-level," she says.
Forty-one per cent of the pre-schoolers were "near-point grippers", and the incidence had doubled to a massive 82 per cent of the seven to nine-year-old age group. A high percentage (74 per cent) of the secondary pupils also tended to grip the tip of their pens, as did 63 per cent of young adults (the under 30s). But only 16 per cent of "mature adults" (over 40s) were near-point grippers.
People who grip their pens at the writing point also show other characteristics which inhibit learning, she notes, such as poor posture, leaning too close to the desk, using four fingers to grip the pen rather than three, and clumsy positioning of the thumb (which can obscure what is being written).
Ms Thomas believes that the difference between older and younger writers is far too dramatic to be accounted for simply by the possibility that people get better at writing as they grow older. She attributes it to a failure to teach the most effective methods, pointing out that the differences between age groups coincides with the abandonment of formal handwriting instruction in classrooms in the Sixties. "The 30-year-olds showed a huge range of grips, but the over 40s group all had a uniform 'tripod' grip" (the three-fingered grip thought to be most efficient).
She also suggests that the problem may have emerged because very young writers are encouraged to grip the pen lower down as this helps with control of line and lettering; this should be adjusted by the teacher later, but it isn't.
It is vital, she stresses, to establish good habits early, because grip style quickly becomes "automated and internalised" and can be impossible to alter later. Even five may be too late, she says, but she has found the following strategies useful: encourage the pupil to be aware of posture and grip and how this affects performance; wind an elastic band around the pencil or pen about 2.5cm from the point and ask them to keep their fingers above it .