Skip to Content

AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Learn NVDA: Hotkeys and Commands, Part 1

Skip to the transcript for this video.

Download this tutorial as an MP3 audio file


Intro: The American Foundation for the Blind in Association with NVAccess presents: Learn NVDA: An Introduction to using your computer and getting online.

Windows Basics, Part 1

Narrator: In this tutorial we will introduce some of the important keyboard commands you will need to know to use NVDA. There are two types of commands in NVDA. Some only use a single key on your keyboard. The Tab, Arrow, Space, and Enter keys are some examples of frequently used single key commands. Other commands use a combination of keys. These keystrokes use modifier keys to change the behavior of the of single key commands. Windows uses Control, Alt, Shift, and Windows keys as modifiers by default.

NVDA introduces a new, very important modifier key called the NVDA key. The NVDA key is set to the Insert key by default but it can be changed to the Caps Lock key in the preferences menu. When we mention a combination of keys, the proper way to enter the keystroke is to hold down all of the modifier keys and then press the single key once. So for example if the keystroke was Control plus Alt plus N you would hold down the Control and Alt modifier keys and then press the N key once before letting go of all of the keys.

Let's move on to how the keyboard is laid out. For purposes of this tutorial, the descriptions we provide of the keys on the keyboard will be based on the standard, full sized, Windows US keyboard layout. If you notice that your keyboard is laid out differently you can use the input help function, which we will talk about in a moment to identify the various keys on your keyboard. A full size keyboard has a few sections that we'll discuss in detail. The top row of keys are the Function keys. The very left key is the Escape key followed by F1 through F12 in groups of four.

The main part of the keyboard is below the function row. This alphanumeric section takes up about two thirds of the width of the keyboard and most of the height. To the right of the alphanumeric section is a distinct column of keys. From top to bottom there are three special function keys which we won't be using. Below them is an important section of keys in a two by three layout called the control pad. The top left key in the control pad is the Insert key. Recall that the Insert key is the NVDA key by default. And below the control pad are the arrow keys which are laid out in an inverted T. And finally the right most section of the keyboard is the number pad.

NVDA has a long list of commands that may seem daunting at first. But most people only regularly need to use a fraction of them. We think the hotkeys in this video are the ones that you need to get started. To make learning the hotkeys a little easier, NVDA includes a tool called "Input Help." When you enable "input help," NVDA will speak the name of any key or key combination that you press. If the command is provided by NVDA, it will also tell you what action it will perform in your current context.

With input help on, you don't have to worry about accidentally activating anything because none of the commands will actually be performed. This allows you to safely explore your keyboard layout. This is also very helpful for finding some of the more obscure keys in your keyboard and can be especially helpful if you are on a laptop that may not have a standard key layout. The NVDA plus 1 command will toggle input help on and off.

The Arrow, Tab, Enter, Space and Escape keys are the very basic keys that allow you to move around and interact with programs on your computer. The goal of this section is to define what action these keys generally perform. The exact functionality of these movement keys can change based on your current context but with some practice it's easy to learn what to expect them to do.

We'll start with the arrow keys. The arrow keys represent the smallest movement forwards or backwards that you can make. If you're using the arrow keys you're not going to skip over anything on the screen in most cases but there may be some areas that you can't get to just by arrowing. Usually when we're talking about moving around a program while using a screen reader we only need to worry about forwards and backwards. That's because a screen reader takes the screen's contents and aligns it in one dimension. In most cases we can move forwards or backwards with the up or down arrow but there some instances in which left and right also become important like in a grid or table. In the future we'll specifically call out those instances.

The Tab key is the left most key in the fourth row from the bottom, or just to the left of the Q key. Pressing Tab generally moves you to the next interactive element on the screen. It may also move you between sections of an application. In general Tab is a quick way to get around but you'll probably skip over paragraphs of text in the process. You can also hold Shift and press Tab to move backwards.

The Enter key is the last key on the third row from the bottom of the alphanumeric section. Pressing the Enter key usually means "Accept" and "Continue." If you press the Enter key, you're indicating that you're finished with what you were doing, and it's okay to be taken to the next screen.

The Spacebar is the wide key in the middle of the bottom row. The Spacebar represents a more gentle interaction when compared to the Enter key. Pressing Space means you want to activate an element without leaving the screen you're currently on unless you're specifically clicking on something like a "Submit" or "Next" button.

And finally, the Escape key is the very top left key on the keyboard. Escape means that you want to back out of wherever you are and discard any changes that you may have made.

Now let's talk about modifier keys. As we mentioned before modifier keys are generally used in combination with other keys to perform actions. Most of the modifier keys can be found on the bottom left of the keyboard. Starting at the left of the bottom row of keys, you will find the Control key. Moving right, you'll find the Windows key and then the Alt key. Above the Control key you will find the Shift key which is wider than the others. If you're on a laptop you may have a Function key in between the Control and Windows keys.

If you press the Control key by itself, it will make NVDA stop speaking immediately. This is extremely helpful since NVDA can be quite verbose. Similarly the Shift key will pause NVDA's speech. Pressing Shift again will resume speech from where it left off.

The navigation keys combined with the modifier keys are the basic keys you need to know to get started. These keys are not unique to screen reader users, but screen users are dependent on them. It's up to each application developer to properly implement keyboard functionality within their own app which creates some inconsistency. And that's why we recommend learning the kind of action that each key is supposed to represent because you will likely have better success than by trying to memorize exactly what each key does in every application. In the next tutorial we will put this information to use and talk about some important commands specific to NVDA.

services icon Directory of Services

book icon Featured Book

O & M for Independent LivingO&M for Independent Living

O&M for Independent Living

Support Our Work

Your support fuels AFB's work to make technology—from everyday electronics to life-saving devices—accessible for everyone.