Headings in PDFs

The “Touch Up Reading Order” tool in Adobe Acrobat Pro is a quick way to see if your PDF document is structured with headings and other tags that help screen reader users.

Why Headings Matter in PDFs

As with Word and HTML documents, a well-structured PDF helps students who are blind understand and navigate the document. They can hear the difference between a paragraph and a heading level 2. They can skim a document by jumping from heading to heading to find the part they want to read.

There is one big difference between PDFs and Word or HTML pages, though. Without the tags that give a PDF structure, a screen reader user may not be able to read the document at all.

The Veterans Health Administration has a video that demonstrates the difference headings make.

View PDF’s Structure with “Touch Up Reading Order” Tool

The “Touch Up Reading Order” tool is the easiest way to see and edit a PDF page’s structure. It overlays each block of text in your document with a gray rectangle. In the top left corner of each rectangle is a number to show the order in which a screen reader will encounter each block. Instead of the numbers, you can choose to see the blocks labeled to show how they are tagged.

Called just “Reading Order” in some versions of Acrobat, this tool is a good place to start when you’re making a PDF accessible. In some cases, though, you may need to work directly with the document’s tags, as described later in this document.

Access “Touch Up Reading Order” Tool

  1. Click “Tools” to open the Tools column.
  2. Click “Accessibility.”
  3. Click “Touch Up Reading Order.” (Or just “Reading Order.”)

If You Don’t See “Accessibility” Tools

If you don’t see “Accessibility” in your list of tools, you may need to click a small “Show or hide panels” icon at the top right of the tools list and select “Accessibility” from the drop-down menu. If you are using Acrobat Pro DC, you may see a page full of tools as soon as you click the Tools tab. Click “Add” below the “Accessibility” tool to include it on the Tools list.

Adding the Accessibility panel to Tools.
You may need to add the Accessibility panel to your tools list.

Check Headings with the Touch Up Reading Order Tool

  1. Click “Touch Up Reading Order” under “Accessibility” tools and a small window will appear over your document.
  2. Uncheck “Display like elements in a single block.”
  3. Select “Structure types.”
  4. Each block of text on the page should have gray rectangle superimposed on it. The name of that text’s tag will be in the top left of the rectangle.
Using the TouchUp Reading Order Tool to view page structure.
A level 1 heading will show an “H1.” Paragraph text will have a “P” in the corner. A level 2 heading will be marked with an “H2.”

Change a Tag with the “Reading Order” Tool

If a block of text was incorrectly tagged as H3, here is how you could change that to H2.

  1. While viewing the document’s structure with the “Touch Up Reading Order” tool, click the “H3” in the corner of the incorrectly tagged text.
  2. Click the “Heading 2” button in the Touch Up Reading Order window.
  3. The block of text should now show “H2” where it previously said “H3.”

Work Directly With Tags

The “Reading Order” tool is a good first choice for quickly checking structure the order in which a screen reader will read a document’s content. The tags pane, though, is more reliable.

For example, if you converted a Word document to a PDF on a Mac, you may find that the “Touch Up Reading Order” tool shows every block of text with a “P” tag, even those styled in Word as headings. You can change the P tags to headings, but you may not need to. First, look at your tags directly.

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

If you converted Word to PDF on a Mac, headings will appear as H1, H2, H3, etc. You may have to expand the tags list; click the little gray arrows until you get to a level where you see the headings. Click a heading tag and Acrobat will display a blue rectangle around the corresponding text in the document. (It helps to close the Touch Up Reading Order tool first.) As long as you see the structure you want in the tags list, you don’t need to fix the “P” tags you see in the Touch Up Reading Order tool.