Accessible Reading Order

 In Articles, PDF Accessibility

Programmer creating reading tags on lapotp

Of the many accessibility concerns that can potentially come up in a PDF, the correct reading order is one of the most critical. The term “Reading Order” refers to the sequential presentation of content in a PDF by screen readers and other assistive technology.

Ideally, the screen reader will read the content in a manner that is logical and closely, if not exactly, matching the document’s visual appearance. If the reading order in a document isn’t correctly established, when assistive technology is reading that document to someone, that person could be left with an inaccurate and possibly confusing rendition of the content on the page.

Below are three statements regarding the reading order.


Reading Order: True and False

The order of elements in the Tags and the “Z-Order” panels (in Adobe Acrobat) need to match.

FALSE. When assistive technologies are reading PDFs to people, they follow the Tags panel, not the “Z-Order” panel. As a result, to fix reading order issues, PDF remediators need to make sure that the Tags are in the correct order (and rearrange them as needed).

Adobe “Read Out Loud” is a good screen reader for testing PDF accessibility.

FALSE.  Adobe Read Out Loud is not a “real” screen reader. While it might give a fair indication of how a document may be read, it’s not a true screen reader and, as such won’t read things – especially lists, tables, and tables of contents – like an actual screen reader will.

The only accurate way to verify that the reading order is correct in a PDF is to examine the Tags tree and make sure that the order of the tags is logical as compared to looking at the “physical view” of the document.


Of course, the above considerations are for addressing reading order in a PDF. Ideally, you want to make sure to address reading order while creating your documents so that you don’t have to fix it in the PDF later.

Formatting Best Practices: Microsoft Word and PowerPoint

computer screen showing numbered listWhen it comes to formatting your documents, sometimes the correct reading order is easy to establish and sometimes it’s not. If you’re using Microsoft Word to author your content, and you’re typing the text in a logical manner, achieving the correct reading order is relatively easy. That being said, if you want to layout your text in columns, be sure to use the Column functionality that Word provides. However, inserting text boxes and/or images in Word can present some problems. Make sure you place these items “In line with text.” Due to the nature of PowerPoint, and the ability to move freely add elements onto slides, establishing the correct reading order for the PDF can be a little tricky.

Make sure that when adding content like text boxes to slides, you’re creating them and placing them in the order in which you’d want them read. You may still, however, have to make some adjustments in the PDF.  Alternatively, CommonLook Office GlobalAccess, a plug-in for MS Word and PowerPoint, makes it easier to verify and correct the reading order in PowerPoint before the PDF is created.  When running CommonLook Office in PowerPoint, you’re asked to verify the reading order of the elements on PowerPoint slides before the PDF is generated.  If the reading order isn’t ideal, CommonLook Office allows you to easily make the necessary adjustments without actually changing the physical layout of the slides   If you’re using other products like Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, etc., make sure that you’re putting your documents together in a logical sequence, keeping in mind that you might have to fix the reading order in the PDF.  Fortunately, thanks to advanced functionality like “Cut and Paste” and “Change Tag Order,” CommonLook PDF GlobalAccess makes fixing the reading order in PDFs easy, no matter what the source!  (Note: these features and more, available in CommonLook PDF GlobalAccess will be further addressed in future articles.)

Accessibility Remediation

If my documents have accessible reading order, do I need to have it remediated for accessibility?

There are, of course, other accessibility concerns to be aware of when creating or remediating PDFs and we’ll discuss some of these in subsequent papers.  We hope this article has given you some valuable information and additional things to consider when it comes to reading order.  If you have questions, concerns, or you’d like to know more about CommonLook, please contact us at