accessible headers

Using Headings – Creating Accessible Content

Do you find yourself skimming through articles to find points of interest by using  headers? Those headers are more important than you think! Let’s chat about why that is the case.

“A heading describes the content that follows it, much like a news headline. When arriving at a new page, sighted users gravitate toward headings to quickly find what they want on the page. Screen reader and other assistive technology users can also skip from heading to heading.” “Headings create an outline for the page, similar to a term paper outline or table of contents.”

Creating accessible headers in your course content is important for three key reasons:

  1. headers create order for topics and sub-topics
  2. headers allow screen readers* (such as ReadSpeaker) to navigate the content and tell the student that they are beginning a new topic
  3. headers allow the student to tab through headers to find the topic of interest

In other words, it helps everyone navigate the document easily.

* Screen readers and assistive technologies rely on heading tags (<h1> – <h6>) to identify headings. Text that is merely large, bold, or emphasized is not interpreted as a heading unless the <h1> – <h6> markup is used.

So you ask…How do I assure that my content has the proper headings? Believe it or not, creating headers in the Brightspace content editor, Google docs, or in a Word Document is fairly easy to accomplish. Here are some basic steps you can follow for each content creation option:


Highlight the text. Select the proper heading level from the “Format” dropdown menu.

Brigthspace text editor format menu with paragraph and heading options
  1. Start with Heading 1 <H1>. Consider the <H1> text to be the title, and use <H1> only one time per page.
  2. Use heading levels in succession. <H1> (title), <H2> (subtitles), <H3> (topics), <H4> (subtopics), etc.
  3. Do not skip ahead levels, e.g. do not move from <H1> to <H3>. 
  4. You can use multiple <H2>, <H3>, <H4>, etc. within the same page.
  5. Always include content within your headings.
  6. Headings should be descriptive of the information to follow. For example, <H1> Week 3</H1> should be the title of a page containing content for week 3.

When you are finished choose “Publish” to share the content with your students or “Save as Draft” if you have more work to do.

Note: To remove a heading, follow the same steps but select the “paragraph” option from the menu.


In MS Word under the Home tab you will find the Styles menu. 

Word document home menu with styles option highlighted

In the Styles menu you will find a selection of headings- Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc.

word document styles menu

You can use the default settings for each of the Heading options or you can edit or create new styles to fit your formatting needs.

Keep in mind as you create your content that heading levels should represent the structure of the document.

  • A Heading 1 is the document title or a main content heading. There is generally just one Heading 1 per document, although it is possible to have more than one (e.g., a journal where each article is a Heading 1).
  • A Heading 2 is a major section heading.
  • A Heading 3 is a subsection of the Heading 2.
  • A Heading 4 is a subsection of the Heading 3, and so on.

To view the structure of the document it is helpful to turn on the Navigation Pane. From the main menu, select the View tab,and then check the Navigation pane option.  As you create your content you will see the heading structure appear in the Navigation panel.

microsoft word view menu with navigation pane highlighted

Notice in the following example the outline of the document is listed to the left of the document. The “headers” are listed and the indentation indicates the sequence of H1, H2, H3.

microsoft word navigation pane

For more information on creating accessible Word documents check out the Accessible Word Documents section of the Library of Accessibility Resources in Brightspace.

Google Docs

As with MS Word, assign headings based on the hierarchy of your document. The main title or description of the document should begin with a Heading 1; this should be the only Heading 1 element in your document. A Heading 2 can be used for the various main sections of the document – similar to chapter titles in a book.  Heading 3 elements can be used for sub-sections contained within a Heading 2 section. 

To add Headings in Google Docs:

  1. Select the text that you want to assign as a heading.
  2. Change from Normal Text to Heading 1, Heading 2, or Heading 3, Heading 4, Heading 5 using the appropriate heading levels depending on your content structure.
  3. Any of the heading styles can be used to help a screen reader navigate through the Google Docs page. Heading 1 should be used as the page title, and Headings 2 and 3 should be used as subsections and sub-subsections respectively. 
Google docs heading dropdown

For additional information on making your course content accessible to your students please refer to the Library of Accessibility Resources in Brightspace.

2 thoughts on “Using Headings – Creating Accessible Content”

  1. I really appreciate this quick & easy primer on how to make documents more accessible in a variety of programs. Thank you, I will refer to this often.

    1. Wonderful! We’re glad you find it useful. We will have more in this series coming soon as well. You’ll be able to see them all on our Digital Accessibility & UDL page. The link is in the main navigation.

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