Tabs, Tables, Columns in Word

If you have data that needs rows and columns like on spreadsheets, use tables, not tabs. For a complex table, though, an HTML version will be much more accessible than a table in Word.

Week-by-week course schedules, grading schemes, assignment rubrics, the number of vehicle crashes of different types broken down by state… These would probably best be displayed in tables.

The Trouble with Tabs

Below is an unfortunate way people commonly arrange class schedules:

Module 3                        Photography for Social Reform, the Early Days
Jan. 19-23                      Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
–                                       Read Pages 95-120
–                                       Take Module 3 Quiz

Module 4                        Twentieth Century Reformers
Jan. 26-30                      W. Eugene Smith and Sebastião Salgado
–                                         Read Pages 143-187
–                                         Take Module 4 Quiz

What appears to be a column on the right is made by inserting a tab or tabs in each line of text. To the eye, that looks fine. We see that Module 3 is January 19 through 23. We see that all the information about Module 3 is to the right of it. When we look at the schedule later in the semester, we skip over Modules 1 through 3 and land our gaze on Module 4. It only takes a glance.

A screen reader will see it more like this:

Module 3 Photography for Social Reform, the early days Jan. 19-23 Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine Read Pages 95-120 Take Module 3 Quiz Module 4 Twentieth Century Reformers Jan. 26-30 W. Eugene Smith and Sebastião Salgado Read Pages 143-187 Take Module 4 Quiz

To find Module 14 with a screen reader, you’d wade through everything for modules 1 through 13. It takes way more than a glance.

To the eye, a table can look nearly the same as the tabbed version. Choose no borders if you want to hide the lines between cells.

Module and Date Topic and Activities
Module 3
Jan. 19-23
Photography for Social Reform, the Early Days.
Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.
Read Pages 95-120.
Take Module 3 Quiz.
Module 4
Jan. 26-30
Twentieth Century Reformers.
W. Eugene Smith and Sebastião Salgado.
Read Pages 143-187.
Take Module 4 Quiz.

Now if you wanted to find your way to Module 14 with a screen reader, you could move down the left column until you heard it. Then you’d just shift right for details.

A No-Tab, No-Table Alternative

Before you make a table, though, consider whether you could accomplish the same thing with neither tabs nor table, by using headings for example:

January 19 through 23: Photography for Social Reform, the Early Days

Photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

Read pages 95 through 120.

Take Module 3 Quiz.

January 26 through 30: Twentieth Century Reformers

Photographers W. Eugene Smith and Sebastião Salgado.

Read pages 143 through 187.

Take Module 4 Quiz.

With a screen reader, you can jump from heading to heading. You’d only have to listen to the beginning of a heading before you jumped to the next. I left the module numbers off the example above, but what you include in your headings is up to you.

Associate Table Heading Cells with Data Cells

If heading cells aren’t associated with data cells, a user can quickly get lost in a sea of data. As with non-table headings, just making text big and bold does not create a heading. Unlike HTML, Word does not provide ways to define heading cells and directly associate them with data cells. But some screen readers support workarounds. Here are some techniques you can use to explicitly associate headings with columns or rows. These will allow you to hear where you are as you move though the data cells.

Repeat the Heading Row

If your table has headings only in the top row, you can us a table property to mark those as column headings.

  1. Click to put your cursor in the top row.
  2. Right click (control click on a Mac) and choose “Table Properties.”
  3. With the properties window open on the “Row” tab, check “Repeat as header row at the top of each page” and click OK.

Video on Repeating the Heading Row

The follow Microsoft video demonstrates how to add the Heading Row to a document.

Add Bookmark to Define Heading Row

Here is another way to mark a row as headings.

  1. Place the insertion point in any cell within the row containing the headers.
  2. Open the Insert menu (ALT+N) and choose Bookmark (K).
  3. Type “ColumnTitle” without the quotes and press ENTER.

Add Bookmark to Define Heading Column

  1. Place the insertion point in any cell within the column containing the headers.
  2. Open the Insert menu (ALT+N) and choose Bookmark (K).
  3. Type “RowTitle” without the quotes and press ENTER.

Add Bookmark to Define Both Heading Row and Column

  1. Place the insertion point in a cell where the row and column containing the headers meet.
  2. Open the Insert menu (ALT+N) and choose Bookmark (K).
  3. Type “Title” without the quotes and press ENTER.

Multiple Tables

Word won’t allow two bookmarks to have the same name. So if you have more than one table, you can add to the end of the bookmark names. For example, in one document, you can use Title_1, in another Title_2, etc.

Write a Summary

Also on the “Table Properties” window, you will find an “Alt Text” tab where you can include a brief summary of what the data tells you. If you need a more in-depth explanation, include a description of the table in the text above or below the table.

Things to Avoid in Tables

Try to avoid merged and split cells, as these make tables especially hard to decipher audibly. Don’t put tables within tables. Also, if your cells have a lot of text in them, Word may split the row and continue it on the next page. That can be disorienting to screen reader users. But you can prevent that:

Columns

Another place people frequently misuse tabs is to create columns. This is different from data that you would put in a table. It is text meant to be read all the way down one column, then down the next, without the association between cells in a row that you typically see in a table.

If you use tabs to create the appearance of columns, a screen reader will read the first line in the first column, then the first
line in the second column, then the second line in the first, then the second line in the second column, etc.

In Word, you can divide a part of your document into accessible columns. Put a continuous section break at the beginning and end of where you want your columns. Then, from the layout tab on the ribbon, choose the number of columns you want.

These directions are for Office 2016. Other versions of Microsoft Office may work slightly differently.