Reading Order in PDFs

“Touchup Reading Order” is one of the most important tools in Adobe Acrobat. Without it, there’s a good chance that screen readers will read some of your document out of order.

Why Reading Order Matters

Applications and operating systems have built-in features that make it easy to save a PDF version of a document. But what looks great on the surface can be a jumble when read by a screen reader. Even PDFs made from Word documents often need a little help. It’s wise to use Acrobat to check the reading order of any PDF you make.

View Reading Order in Acrobat

On the “Navigation Pane,” that slim vertical bar on the left of the Acrobat window, click the Z-shaped “Order” button. (If you don’t see the Order button, right click the Navigation Pane and choose Order from the menu.)

The Order button will show a gray box over each block of content in your document. The boxes will have numbers to show the order in which a screen reader will read them. You will also see a pane that lists all the blocks of content in your document in the order in which a screen reader will read them. To fix something that’s out of order, just click on it in the list and drag it to where it belongs.

The Order button shows the reading order.
The Order button shows your page’s reading order. Click the Options menu to open the Reading Order Panel and refine what you see.

Sometimes the gray boxes over the documents contain too much, group things that you want to arrange separately. To see smaller, more selective boxes, click the “Options” button above the Order list and choose “Show Reading Order Panel.”

On this “Touch Up Reading Order” panel, make sure “Page content order” is selected and that “Display like elements in a single block” is unchecked.

Touchup Reading Order Panel
Select “Page content order” and uncheck “Display like elements in a single block.”

Work Directly With Tags (Advanced Technique)

The “Reading Order” tool is good for quickly checking the order in which a screen reader will read a document’s content. Sometimes the tags pane is more reliable, though, because it’s really the order of the tags that determines the reading order. You can click on tags and drag them to rearrange the reading order, as you would in the Order panel. Working with tags is a little more esoteric than the Order panel and it’s a little harder to tell which tag goes with which content.

View Tags

Click the “Tags” icon on the narrow “Navigation Pane” on the left of the document. Or if you don’t see that…

  1. Click “View” at the top of the Acrobat window.
  2. Hover your cursor over “Show/Hide.”
  3. Then hover over “Navigation Panes.”
  4. Click “Tags.”

List of Tags

Find Which Text Goes with Which Tag

Click a tag and Acrobat will display a blue rectangle around the corresponding text in the document. Or to find the tag that corresponds to some text in your document, highlight the text, then from the “Options” menu in the tags panel, choose “Find Tag from Selection.”

If you can’t highlight text, you may have to switch to the “Selection tool” on the toolbar, instead of the hand-shaped pan tool.