How to Use Screen Readers

Close your eyes or turn off your computer monitor. (Read this first before trying.)

You cannot see images, text, links, buttons, form fields, or anything else on the screen. How useful is your mouse? If you move it around, do you know where the mouse cursor is? Probably not.

When you use a screen reader, you will not use the same steps to navigate or operate your computer.

On a mobile device, the commands will be done with your fingers or with assistive technology connected to your device. Examples are a refreshable Braille display or an alternative keyboard.

On a desktop computer, the commands will be done with a keyboard, an alternative keyboard, or a refreshable Braille display.

If you are using a keyboard or alternative keyboard, you will likely hear the screen reader read the screen aloud.

If you are using a refreshable Braille display, you will likely feel the Braille display change to describe the screen.

The screen reader will tell you:

  • Where you are, e.g., image, text, link, button, form field
  • The state of where you are, e.g., button selected, box unchecked, list item, heading level, visited link
  • What you can do where you are, e.g., select a button, check a box, select a link

Scanning the elements

Notice anything special that the screen readers can do? They can jump around the screen to look at a specific element. We do that with our eyes, noting specific visual cues. 

This allows screen reader users to ignore or skip most of the content. They are not there listening to the entire screen being read to them each time.


Most screen readers allow you to skip around via the headings and their heading levels. It is kind of like going through menus on your telephone. The first level greets you, informing you of the company you called. The second level hits the main options or points. The third and lower levels hit those sub-points.


Another common way to navigate a screen is just viewing the links on the screen. Unfortunately, this can be confusing if all the links are called "click here" or "link". If they describe their purpose or destination, they are easier to use. For example, "fill out the screen reader form" or "login to Blackboard Learn" make more sense.


Some screen readers have a special tabular data view. When in that view, the screen reader user can navigate the table. They listen to the column or row headings as they navigate to each table cell. They hear both if table headings are marked on both. These are not the same as the heading levels above. There are specific table headers used to define table row data and table column data properly.


Some screen readers have a special form view. It only navigates through form fields and form controls. This may mean missing information if it is not in a form field or form control. It is meant to focus the screen reader user on how to fill out the form. If each field is properly labeled, they know which form field they are on. If each field is properly explained, they know how to fill out each field. Even if they make mistakes, proper field validation and warnings can advise them on how to correct their answers.


Some screen readers allow you to skip around a screen to different portions. Landmarks identify sections of a webpage. This can include a navigation section, a search section, a form section, a banner (heading) section, a contentinfo (footer) section, a main content section, and more.