Using headings in text documents

Although we live in a highly visual world, we use written text constantly. But how do we know that what we write works for learners?

Many school text documents are not as great as they could be.

When we write text documents, we may often use the bold, underline or increase font size functions, to make something important, like a title stand out.

Newsletter header

We aim to layout and organise our documents so that the reader will be able to visually scan the information and find what they want with ease.

But when many of us began using a computer or a laptop, no-one sat us down and gave us a “this is best the best way to do this” tutorial.

We just used the knowledge gained in teacher training and years of  “making things engaging and motivating” in the classroom, and merged our skills with scissors and colour with our use of Word, Pages or Open Office.

But you don’t know what you don’t know. And unknowingly we have all been making documents that are difficult for some people to read and we have been none the wiser.

A better way to construct text documents

Built into word processing packages such as Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages and Open Office is the ability to construct documents that are user friendly to everyone from the outset.

Using headings: Adding signposts to your documents

One really useful function is the capacity to label each section of a document with an invisible tag or signpost (a heading). This is particularly helpful for a person who is blind or with low vision using a screen reader to access a document or web page on a computer.

Screen reading programmes read aloud the text, and allow the user to “tab”,  jump from section to section within a document. This avoids having to listen to every word from top to bottom.

As headings are organised in a hierarchy, the order of the headings tells the reader:

  • What is most important.
  • The subject of content below it.

Other benefits of using headings

  1. When the text document is exported to a blog or web page (into HTML), it will keep it’s structure, making it more accessible  to screen readers, without extra tweaking.
  2. When exported to PDF, it will also keep it’s good structure.
  3. It encourages the author to structure and label information in a logical way.

Getting started with headings

Find Styles on your computer

In software like Word and Pages, there is a function called Styles (fig.1) that gives your document an invisible structure:

Word drop-down menu

  • In Microsoft Word, headings can be found in the Style section.
  • In Apple’s Pages, the heading elements are found in the Styles Drawer.
  • Open Office Writer, the headings can be found in the Styles drop-down bar.

Explore the different ways to get to Styles. As we often have different set ups to our colleagues, it is useful to develop a set of skills for searching for what you need.

Find the headings function under Styles and set up your heading sizes

In BLENNZ, we use Ariel 12 as our font of choice and often set up our headings as follows:

  • Heading 1 – font size 20 + bold
  • Heading 2 – font size 16 + bold
  • Heading 3 – font size 16
  • Heading 4 – font size 14 + bold

These sizes may not always be appropriate, but there are our base line.

The most important thing is to always use the heading function.

How to organise your headings

On a text document, the title should always be heading 1 and all other headings below this should be numbered heading 2, 3, 4 in order of importance. Sometimes you will have more than one heading 2 and correspondingly at heading 3 or 4.

The picture below shows how the layout of headings might be arranged on the subject of fruit.

Layout of headings

Visual description of layout of headings:

Title: Fruit (heading 1).

Main section: Citrus fruit (heading 2).

Sub-section: Oranges (heading 3).

Main section: Stone Fruit (heading 2).

Sub-section: Peaches (heading 3).

Using headings effectively

Using headings helps you structure your document and keeps the information flowing in a logical order. It’s up to you whether you write all your text first, then add your heading or vice versa.

Recommendations for newbies

  • Use headings for all your new documents.
  • Show’n’tell a colleague your new learning or pass on the link to this post.
  • Use the same principles when you write blog posts, wiki and website pages.

More information and support on making accessible text documents

WebAim – a Microsoft help site.

Styles and formatting tutorial for Word – a YouTube video by JISC Regional Support Centre for Scotland North and East.

Apple Pages video on the official Apple website

Image credits

Newsletter banner fontshop
Coloured pens steakpinball