Black and yellow caterpillar hanging upside down while munching on a leaf.

Efficiently navigating a document or textbook for class

Does your screen reader student know how to navigate a document or textbook efficiently for comprehension purposes?

Students are taught how to create a document, how to type in content, to edit, save, etc. but has your screen reader student been taught how to efficiently navigate a document for comprehension purposes? What? There is more to reading a document than simply asking the screen reader to read from start to finish?

Note: While the video in this post is specifically Microsoft Word on a Mac, the concept can be applied to any device, document software, and any screen reader.

Navigating by headings

How are textbooks formatted? Is a textbook that is hundreds of pages, one long paragraph? Absolutely not! Textbooks are are divided into chapters. Each chapter will have a title in large, bold and possibly colorful font. Each section in the chapter will have large font headings, sometimes the font is in color and there may be a bold/colorful line across the page. Sub-headings are smaller font than the main heading, but still larger than the text in the body of the paragraph. The bigger the size font, the more important that information is. The different text formats are designed to quickly draw attention to the section, which is beneficial for organizing chunks of information. This is standard format for textbooks. Headings are also helpful when trying to quickly navigate back to a specific section. This is a critical skill for students who need to navigate quickly to a specific section to review or to find an answer to a question. Readers often “skim” the document by quickly moving through the different headings. Skimming gives an “outline view” of the document content and can be used when trying to navigate back to a specific section to review the content. Many students will skim a chapter first, to develop an “overview” of the chapter before drilling down and reading each section.

Students often learn how to navigate by Headings when doing Internet searches In the Reading Efficiently with a Screen Reader: Headings post, we took a deep dive into Headings using kid-friendly websites. However, educators often forget to specifically teach heading navigation in documents. Does your student know how to navigate by headings in a document?

Reading by paragraphs

How are documents formatted? Is a document with multiple pages, one long paragraph? No! The author divides the document into sections or paragraphs. When reading for comprehension (versus reading for pleasure), it is best to read paragraph by paragraph. Paragraphs are designed to include a chunk of information. Reading paragraph by paragraph helps the student organize the information into these designated chunks. Processing by chunks or paragraphs is also beneficial if the student needs to navigate back to a specific paragraph in order to clarify or remember details in that paragraph – a critical skill for students who are answering questions about the document. Reading by paragraph also keeps the student actively engaged while reading, as the student has to give the command to move to the next paragraph. 

In the Reading Efficiently with a Screen Reader: Reading by Paragraphs post, we discussed reading by paragraph and the “lean in” vs. “lean out” when reading for comprehension versus reading for pleasure. This previous post goes into more detail and has basic comprehension activities geared for younger users. As students evolve from touch screen tablets to laptops, TSVIs should review and confirm that students are applying efficient tech skills with higher level content.

Reading by paragraphs and headings video

Navigating Word on a Mac with VoiceOver video tutorial


Microsoft Word commands on a Mac with VoiceOver

Command F5 to turn VO on or off.

Control + Option are the two keys that are pressed simultaneously and are written as VO or VoiceOver

VO + A will read the entire document and will start reading from the top.

Control key will pause the VO reading. Press Control again to resume VO reading from the location where it was paused.

Quick Nav should be on by default. To toggle between quick nav on and quick nav off, press the right + left arrow keys simultaneously. 

Option + down arrow will read the next paragraph. Currently, Option + down arrow will only read the first line of the next paragraph.

Option + up arrow will read the previous paragraph. Currently, Option + up arrow will only read the first line of the previous paragraph.

If you would like to move paragraph by paragraph and have the full paragraph read, use the rotor set to Paragraphs and then simply navigate using the down arrow (to the next paragraph) or the up arrow (to the previous paragraph).

Up arrow + right arrow (or Command + Caps Lock + right or left arrow) will move through the rotor options.

Note: There should be a way to navigate by headings in Word using the H (or VO + H), similar to using these shortcut keys to navigate a website. At the time of this video, this shortcut key did not work in Word on my Mac. If you know how to make this work, please email me at [email protected].

Microsoft Word commands on a PC with JAWS

Navigation Quick Keys makes it easier to move around on a Web page and other areas when the Virtual Cursor is active. H is used to navigate to the next Heading. Shift H is used to navigate to the previous Heading.

If you would like to explore a list of all the headings on a page, press Narrator + F6. To navigate the list, press the up or down arrows and press Enter to go to the heading’s location on the page.

Insert + down arrow to read the entire document starting at current location

Control to stop talking

Home to move to the top/beginning of the document

Control + down or up arrows to move to the next or previous paragraph

Insert + F6 to show list of headings

Insert F7 to show list of links


These activities can be done with any document which has been formatted correctly and has Headings, or download the Caterpillar Facts for Kids document that was used in the video tutorial.

Skim the document activities:

Read the document by paragraphs.

Provide a list of 5 questions about the document.

Encourage curiosity!


For information on how to create an accessible document see:

by Diane Brauner, June 28, 2023

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