Creating Headings for a Screen Reader: Lesson Plan

I recently had the opportunity to talk with a number of wonderful Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs) and Orientation and Mobility Specialists (O&Ms) during a technology training.  These passionate educators are incorporating technology into lessons and their students are successfully using technology in the classroom and beyond.  Many schools have embraced technology and are now providing 1:1 devices for students.  What a game changer for students with visual impairments!  Technology has rapidly changed the way we teach; and, many TVIs and O&Ms have had to teach themselves about technology.  Often these self-taught educators have some gaps when it comes to the accessibility features that are embedded into various devices and accessibility software applications.  One such gap is how to use Headings so that students who use screen readers can quickly skim or navigate through a document.

What are Headings?

Headings are a word, phrase or sentence at the beginning of a passage that indicate what the paragraph or section is about.  Headings help organize a document or chapter into easily digested chunks of information.  Headings typically have larger, boldfaced text. Many educators do not realize that increasing the text size and/or making the text boldface is not accessible with a screen reader.  Screen readers typically do not indicate when a word or phrase is highlighted, bolded, italicized or underlined.  In order to make an accessible heading, you must use the Heading Styles located in the Ribbon (or Toolbar) at the top of the page.  When Headings are used, the screen reader will announce the Heading level and students can choose to jump from heading to heading.

Examples of Headings:  In this document, "What are Headings?", "Skimming or Navigating a Document", "Examples of Heading Levels" and "How to Create a Heading Level" are accessible Headings.  

Skimming or Navigating a Document

Students who use a screen reader can efficiently skim a document using Headings. Skimming a document by Headings will provide the student with a general outline of the document with the main points and sub-points.  Consider a textbook chapter, as textbooks have multiple levels of Headings.  Each Heading level decreasing in size and importance.  Example: The title of the chapter will be the largest font.  The main sections of the chapter will be indicated with a Heading word, phrase or sentence that will be marked as a Heading Level 2 - boldfaced font with text smaller than the chapter name but larger than the normal paragraphs of text. The sub-sections on the chapter will be indicated with a Heading word, phrase or sentence that will be marked as a Heading Level 3 with text that is smaller than the main section Headings.  

Examples of Heading Levels:

Heading Level 2

Heading Level 3

Heading Level 4

With a screen reader, students can easily navigate from heading level to heading level, skipping over the paragraphs of text.  Students can choose to move through all the Heading levels (JAWS command - press the H key to move to next Heading) or to move through only one level of Headings, such as moving through only the Level 2 Headings.  In the 4 Endangered US Mammals document, moving by Headings will quickly tell the student the title and the four types of mammals discussed in the document.

NOTE: Documents with accessible Headings work correctly on computers using screen readers.  When using VoiceOver on the iPad, VoiceOver does not read and navigate Headings (in accessible documents) correctly.  VoiceOver on the iPad does read and navigate website Headings correctly.  See the Additional iPad Headings Information below for details.

How to Create a Heading Level

To add a Heading Style:

  • In your Word document, select the desired text
  • In the Ribbon (Toolbar) at the top of the page, select the desired Heading under the Styles category
    • Use the arrow buttons to move through additional options
    • Use the Title, Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc. and Normal (no Heading)
    • Do not use emphasis, quote, etc. as these are NOT Headings and are not recognized by screen readers

Screenshot of the Word document, 4 Endangered US Mammals with arrows pointing to highlighted "Grizzly Bear" and "Heading 2" styles.

Microsoft Support has a quick video demonstrating how to create Headings along with basic information about Headings. 

Apply Headings using Screen Reader Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Apply Heading Level 1;  Press Ctrl+Alt+1
  • Apply Heading Level 2;  Press Ctrl+Alt+2
  • Apply Heading Level 3:  Press Ctrl+Alt+3
  • Apply Normal Style:  Press Ctrl+Shift+N

Microsoft Support provides detailed information on how to use a screen reader to create headings.

Headings: Teacher and Student Activity

  • Open the attachment, 4 Endangered US Mammals.
  • Move your cursor to the "Grizzly Bear" heading.  
  • Look in the ribbon/toolbar and see which style is indicated.  (Heading 2 will be outlined)
  • Move your cursor to the the main text.  Which style is indicated?  (Normal)
  • Move your cursor to "Location".  Which style is indicated? (Heading 3)
  • At the bottom of the document, type in another endangered animal name, such as the Blue Whale, Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel or the Gray Wolf; if desired, add a brief description about the animal.  (Check out this Endangered Species Website.)
  • Highlight your animal name.
  • Select Heading 2.

Teacher Hint: Be sure to teach your students how to create accessible documents using Headings and how to navigate documents that have Headings.  Students also need to be able to self-advocate and show general education teachers and college professors how to create documents with Headings. Don't forget about using Headings to efficiently navigate websites!

Additional iPad Headings information

Note:  Currently when you create an accessible document with Headings on a computer and then open that document on the iPad, VoiceOver will not navigate by Headings.  Remember, if emailing the Word document to an iPad, open the document in a Word app (Open the attachment, Share > Open In > Word app.)  VoiceOver does not read the Headings if you read the document in the Mail app as an attachment.  If you open the document in Word on the iPad and use the Read All command, VoiceOver does not announce the Heading Levels.  If you drag your finger in Word, VoiceOver will announce the Heading Levels.  VoiceOver currently (iOS 10.2) does not recognize Headings in Pages.  In previous software versions, you could create accessible Headings on an iPad in the Pages app using the Pages Heading format.  However, in iOS 10, VoiceOver does not identify Headings that are created on the iPad in the Pages app.

On an iPad, VoiceOver will announce Headings correctly on websites.  With an iPad using VoiceOver gestures, students can set the rotor to Headings and then swipe down to move through headings.  If using an iPad paired with a Bluetooth keyboard and Quick Nav is on, press H to move to the next Heading Level and shift+H to move back to the previous Heading.  To move through only the Heading Level 1's, press 1 or shift+1.  To move only through Heading Level 2's, press 2 or shift+2.

Collage of headings for a screen reader


Posted by Diane BraunerJan 16, 2017

When using NVDA, you can move by headings using by pressing the letter H.  To move by a specific Heading level, use caps lock+1, caps lock+2, etc.


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