Text navigation

Note: Creating structured documents is an essential accessibility skill. It is relevant to everybody and can save you and your readers a lot of time and effort. Do not skip this!

About the series

This is the first in a four-part series on structured documents.

  • Part 1: Getting started: Why and how
  • Part 2: Basics of structured documents in Microsoft Word
  • Part 3: Advanced structured documents in Microsoft Words
  • Part 4: Structured documents in other word processors and on web pages

Structured documents are one of the most important and least known things you can do to make text more accessible to people with dyslexia. They are also absolutely essential for blind and partially sighted readers.

Every document you create longer than a paragraph should be structured. The good news is that structured documents will actually save you time and help you create better content. If you are creating a longer document, structured documents can save you hours or days.

You can see the outline of the whole series in this MindMap.

About this part

In this part, we will cover why structured documents are so important and the basics of how they are created.

You can also watch this Load2Learn video that covers most of the same points in 5 minutes.

What are structured documents? 

Structured documents have all sections and topics headlined with headings to help with comprehension. These headings are then marked so that software knows they are headings and can help you jump between sections or create tables of contents.

Why structured documents? 

Better comprehension

There is ample research showing that texts with outlines significantly improve comprehension. Structured documents are essentially texts in which the outlines are marked.

Given an outline, students can:

  • generate hypotheses about the contents of the text
  • put things they read into better context
  • plan their reading better
  • navigate back and forth during reading

This is doubly important for students with dyslexia. Dyslexic readers read much more slowly and find it more difficult to keep track of what they’ve read.

Easier skimming and scanning

Because of the lower speed of processing, dyslexic readers find it very difficult to quickly get information from the text. The two important reading strategies dyslexic readers particularly struggle with are:

  • skimming – read the text quickly to get the gist of it
  • scanning – read the text quickly to find specific information

Blind readers using a voice screen reader (or even Braille), cannot skim or scan at all.

A text with ample headings makes it possible to just read the headings to get the gist or to quickly jump to a heading to find the specific information.

Planning writing

Creating headings also has an advantage for the writer. Starting with an outline, makes it easier to:

  • create a coherent text
  • make sure you don’t forget some things
  • write in smaller chunks (more realistic)
  • monitor progress of writing
  • refer back or forward to parts of text

All writers are better when using outlines but dyslexic writers particularly benefit from planning and writing in small chunks.

Text navigation

If you mark your headings as you write. You can use the Navigation feature in many Word processors. This makes it easy to both see the outline as you write but also to jump between sections or even move sections around.

Text navigation

We will have a closer look at how this works in Microsoft Word in the next two sections.

Tables of content

Tables of Content

This is where structured documents can literally save your life. If you mark you headings properly, you can then create an accurate table of contents of your document. And, if your document changes, you can update your table of contents with one click.

If you are writing brochures, reports, articles or just instructional materials, you can save yourself hours by doing this. Here’s an image of the table of contents for the Word version of this document, just because it’s so easy:

How to create structured documents?

Create headings for sections and topics

To start, you should get into the habit of labelling sections and topics with headings. In an instructional text, you should probably have a heading every two or three paragraphs.

If you create a full page without at least two headings, you have made it far too difficult to access for your readers.

This is different for stories but dyslexic readers can benefit from some annotation of the outline here, as well.

Mark headings with Heading styles


Why mark headings? 

why mark headings?

If you created a heading, you must somehow tell the computer it is heading. Most people just use bold or make the text bigger. This is important visually for the reader but is of no use to the computer.

If you do not mark the headings, you will lose out on the great benefits of structured documents. And you will make your structure completely inaccessible to blind readers.

Marking headings in word processors

Word processors

The way to mark the headings in a word processor is to use a Heading style. All major word processors have built-in styles called Heading 1, Heading 2 – Heading 9. The number after Heading indicates the level in the outline.

To mark a line as a heading:

  1. simply click anywhere in the line
  2. choose a style from the style menu or pane (depending on the software)

You don’t even have to make it bold or increase the size of the font.

With marked the headings, you can:

  • Generate instant up-to-date table of contents
  • Navigate around the document
  • Make sure all your headings are formatted consistently
  • Change the way your headings look quickly
  • Export PDFs with clickable tables of contents and bookmarks

What are styles

Styles are basically formatting templates for paragraphs. Your word processor will remember the style your paragraph is in and if you change the style (that is, modify the template), it will change all the paragraphs marked with that style.

All paragraphs in a document are marked with a style, even if you don’t do anything. The default style is called Normal in Word or Body Text in some other word processors.

Heading styles

Heading styles are special built-in styles that are also used to mark structure. Heading styles are used universally in by all word processors. Even web pages use Heading styles and browsers display them in special ways.

Screen readers used by blind and visually impaired readers, use Heading styles in documents and on web pages to help user navigate the page. Blind readers also use them as a way to skim the text to get the gist.

Word document version of this post

Next time

You can start making your documents structured now. Just insert headings into your text and mark them with Heading styles.

But if you feel you need more guidance, we will have a closer look at creating structured documents in Microsoft Word in the next two parts of this series.

First, we will look at the basics and then, we will cover some advanced tips and tricks.

Dominik Lukes - Education and Technology Specialist