stack of file folders with labeled tabs:

Understanding the “Ribbon” in Microsoft Word: Screen Reader Activities

Build a mental map and full understanding of the ribbon using these activities!

In order for your student to be a “Tech Power User”, he/she must fully understand the different parts of the screen and how to navigate in and around these parts. This post will focus on ribbon concepts; including JAWS navigating commands. Before diving into the ribbon, it is important that students understand where the ribbon is physically located. At the very top of the Microsoft Word document is the Title and just below the title are two ribbons. Let’s take a closer look at the “ribbon” in Microsoft Word.

Screenshot of the top of a Word Document with annotated labels: Title, Upper Ribbon and Lower Ribbon.

Keep in mind that the National Technology Standards dictate that students should be introduced to Word Processing in kindergarten and should master basic word processing skills by second grade and higher skills (such as formatting and copy/paste) by third or fourth grade.

What is the ribbon?

The ribbon is a command bar that organizes a program’s features into a series of tabs at the top of the screen. Ribbon tabs are composed of  groups of closely related commands, designed to help users quickly find desired commands. Each ribbon is a bar (line) across the page. 

Upper Ribbon Tabs

The upper ribbon, also known as the menu bar. The current upper ribbon tabs are:

On the far right side of the bar are two buttons:

Screenshot of the Upper Ribbon in a Microsoft Word document.

File Folder Tab Activity 1: Upper Ribbon

Materials: 10 file folders, brailled sheets (or large print sheets)

Prep: Braille the 10 ribbon tabs (Home, Insert, Draw, Design, Layout, References, Mailings, Review, View and Tell Me). Places a braille label on the tab of each file folder. Ideally, the file folder tabs will be in descending order, meaning that the physical tab for Home file folder will be on the very left side of the file folder, the physical tab for the Insert file folder will be next position tab, slightly to the right, etc. so that when the folders are stacked on top of each other, the braille labels will seen in the same order as the ribbon bar on the computer.

Activity: With the folders stacked in order, ask the student to read the labels starting with the top folder (tab is far left with the braille and/or print label, “Home”). Shuffle the folders and ask the student to put them in order. If appropriate, ask the student to guess what types of commands might be under each tab. Call out a couple of commands and ask what tab that command might fall under. Next, in Microsoft Word, ask the student to navigate through the tabs in the upper ribbon. Can the student recite the tabs in order?

Navigating the Upper Ribbon with JAWS

When Word is opened, the JAWS focus is on the content of the Word document. 

KeyTips (Shortcut Command)

Listen carefully to the JAWS announcements, as JAWS will state the Keytip (shortcut command). Example: Alt, N (press individually) will jump from the document content to Insert. 

See the video tutorial at the end of this post for step-by-step instructions.

Lower Ribbon

Below the upper ribbon is the lower ribbon, also known as the Toolbar. 

The lower ribbon changes according to which tab is selected in the top ribbon – it is directly associated with a specific tab in the top ribbon. 

Teacher Hint: It is overwhelming to memorize all the options/commands available under each tab, especially for young students and/or beginners with tech. Carefully consider how much information to share with your student according to your student’s age and abilities. Some students may want to explore each and every option, while others may only be ready for one option under the Home tab. The tab descriptions below are middle of the road – providing general information about each tab without going into nitty-gritty details. As an educator, read the entire post to understand the big picture and then break down the concepts to fit your student’s needs. For young or beginner tech users, start with the description of the upper ribbon and then do the beginning File Folder Tab Lesson before introducing the overview of each tab.

Keep in mind that options available in the ribbon may change with software updates – and that’s OK! This post is a guide that can be adapted to accommodate any updates that might impact the ribbon!

Home Tab

The Home tab is organized into commands that fall under these “groupings”: Clipboard, Font, Paragraph, and Styles. (Visually, there is a vertical line between these sections.) There are additional options (available in a drop down menu) under each of some of these areas.

Note: Use the term “groupings” as that is the word that JAWS uses.

Screenshot of Home tab with annotated Clipboard, Font, Paragraph and Styles under each section.

Students with low vision will be particularly interested in these formatting options, which enable users to change the font type, size, and spacing between lines, as well as change the color themes.

Students who rely on screen readers will want to use the Styles (Headings) options which provides screen reader navigating options within the Word document. Students (and educators) should use Heading 1 for the title of the document, Heading 2 is for main ideas, headings 3 for subtopics, etc. (Example: In this post, the title of the post is Heading 1, “What is a Ribbon” (a main idea) is Heading 2,  “Home tab” (a subtopic) is Heading 3, and “Resources” (a subtopic under the Home Tab heading) is Heading 4. Students using a screen reader can use a Heading command to skim this post or use Heading 4 to jump directly to a specific area – Resources.

When creating documents, students (and educators) should always use the Paragraph Styles options to create bullet points or number items to make these lists accessible with a screen reader. 


Insert Tab

The Insert tab is used to insert or add extra features to the document, such as pictures, shapes, pages, symbols, etc. Icons and text are used to identify these options. Most of these options have a drop down menu for additional features. The Insert commands are organized by commands that fall into these groupings:  Pages, Tables, Illustrations, Add-ins, Media, Links,Comments, Header and Footer, Text and Symbols.

Screenshot of Insert tab in Microsoft Word with annotated areas added.

Draw Tab

The Draw tab enables the user to draw in the Word document. The Draw tab is available with Office 365 and if available, may need to be added to your ribbon. The Draw tab has options for choosing what you want to do (draw/eraser), type of pen tool, and draw with trackpad.

Screenshot of Draw Tab in Microsoft Word.

Design Tab

The design tab provides format themes, backgrounds, color schemes, page borders, etc. for your document. If you do not see the Design tab and you would like it in your ribbon, go to File > Options > Customize Ribbon and check the box beside Design.

Screenshot of the Design tab in Microsoft Word.

Layout Tab

The Layout tab enables the user to control the layout, including the page orientation, margins, etc. The Layout options are organized by commands that fall under: Page Setup, Margins, and Arrangement.

Screenshot of the Page Layout tab in Microsoft Word.

References Tab

The Reference tab enables the user to enter document sources and citations, create a table of contents, add an index, etc. The Reference tab is organized by commands that fall under these groupings: Table of Contents, Footnotes,  Research, Citations, Captions, Index, and Table Authorities,

Screenshot of Reference tab in Microsoft Word.

Mailings Tab

The Mailings Tab enables the user to merge emails, writing and inserting different fields, etc. and is the least used tab. The Mailings tab is organized by commands that fall under these groupings: Address, Start Mail Merge, Insert Fields, Preview, Merge Range, and Finish.

Screenshot of Mailings Tab in Microsoft Word.

Review Tab

The Review Tab enables users to proofread, add or remove comments, track changes, Read Aloud, check accessibility, etc.

Students with low vision who are not using a screen reader can access Read Aloud.

Educators who are creating Word documents for classroom use should use the Check Accessibility to check their documents for common accessibility errors.

Students are often involved in group projects that require tracking as peers provide comments to the documents and teachers often provide comments directly in the digital document. After learning the basic Word processing skills (such as copy and paste), the next step for students is to learn to use features in the Review tab in order to work on group projects.

The Review tab is organized by commands that fall under these groupings: Proofreading, Read Aloud, Accessibility, Translate, Comments, Tracking, Reviewing, Accept, Compare, Protect, Ink, and Resume Assistance.

Screenshot of Review Tab in Microsoft Word.

View Tab

The View tab enables users to switch between different views of the document such as seeing more than one page at a time, boundaries, grids and rulers. The View Tab now includes accessibility features such as Focus, Immersive Reader, and Zoom. The View Tab is organized by commands that fall under these groupings: Document View, Accessibility, Show/Hide, Zoom, Window, and Macros.

The Focus option will hide everything at the top of the Word document, leaving just the blank (or written text) on the page. Focus mode was designed to remove any distractions from the document so that students can focus on their writing (or reading). When in Word and using a Mac, Control + Shift + Command + F will toggle Focus on and off.

Screenshot of the View Tab in Microsoft Word.


Tell Me

Tell Me is a help textbox that enables users to type in keywords to ask a question about Word.

Teaching the Ribbon

As you teach students to use items in the ribbon, use the National Technology Standards Scope and Sequence as a guideline of what skills should be taught when. Students should also be taught the same skills at the before or with their peers. 

Note: The terms “menu”, “toolbar” and “ribbon” are sometimes interchanged; however, when teaching students, it is best to use the proper terminology. Upper Ribbon and Lower Ribbon is very clear, while “menu” and “toolbar” are often used generically to mean any part of the ribbon.

File Folder Tab Activity 2: Lower Ribbon

The following activity will help build the ribbon concept. Initially, start with a few of the most common commands under the Home tab, before introducing additional tabs.

Materials and Prep: 

Activity: Stack the folders in order, with the Home tab on top. Ideally, students should see each brailled tab, slightly to the right of the previous tab. Ask the student to open the Home folder and read the list of groupings and/or command options on the braille sheet. For a young or beginner student, talk about the list of items under the Home tab. Then, move to Word on the computer and navigate to the Home button and find a specific item in the lower ribbon. For older students, you might choose to have the student read the braille sheets in two or more folders. Quiz the student by naming a command and asking which tab that command is listed under. Move to the computer and find specific lower ribbon commands.

Navigating the Upper Ribbon with JAWS

When Word is opened, the JAWS focus is on the content of the Word document. 

KeyTips (Shortcut Command)

Listen carefully to the JAWS announcements, as JAWS will state the Keytip (shortcut command). Example: Alt, N (press individually) will jump from the document content to Insert. Alt, N, T is the shortcut command to jump directly to Table in the Insert, Lower Ribbon.

Step-by-Step Screen Reader Navigation for the Parts of the Ribbon video below (JAWS)

Note: As the student’s JAWS skills progress, the student should learn the Keyboard shortcut commands (such as copy and paste) rather than relying on accessing these features in the Ribbon. Here is the Keyboard Shortcut Command For Word (there are device options, so be sure to select Windows if using a Windows Computer. There are an overwhelming number of shortcut commands! The ribbon’s purpose is to have a quick and organized way to access all of these commands without requiring that the student memorize every command.

Ribbon Pinterest Tag

By Diane Brauner

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