Symbol representing a written document.

Creating Headings for a Screen Reader: Lesson Plan

Students who use screen readers can quickly skim or navigate documents using Headings.

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. During and after the pandemic school closures, 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; are you a TVI and/or O&M who has had to teach yourself about technology and accessibility? Do you have concerns about having gaps when it comes to the accessibility features that are embedded into various devices and accessibility software applications? One feature that is often overlooked is the Headings feature which enables students who use screen readers to 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”, “How to Create a Heading Level”, etc. 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 and will be marked Heading Level 1. 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 opening a Word document using 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 using the Styles

Screenshot of the Word document, 4 Endangered US Mammals with arrows pointing to highlighted

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

Apply Headings using Keyboard  Shortcuts (with or without a screen reader) 

PC Keyboard Shortcuts

Mac Keyboard Shortcuts

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

Headings: Teacher and Student Activity

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 Microsoft Word app (Open the attachment, Share > Open In > Word app), VoiceOver does read the Headings. If you open the document in the Pages app on the iPad VoiceOver does not announce the Heading Levels. 

Note: VoiceOver currently 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. 

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.

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