Tables with irregular headers

This page covers tables with header cells that span multiple columns and/or rows. Several elements and attributes can be used to define the structure and relationships of the header and data cells.

For example, a header cell that spans three columns should be associated with corresponding data cells in the column group. This can be done by setting the scope attribute of the header cell to the value colgroup. The same principle applies to header cells spanning multiple rows. In this case, they are associated with by using the value rowgroup in the scope attribute.

However, before making these associations, the structure of such groups of columns and rows needs to be defined in the table markup:

  • A column group is defined using the <colgroup> element.
  • A row group is defined by the <thead>, <tfoot> and <tbody> elements.
    • <thead> and <tfoot> elements can be used once in a table.
    • A table can have any number of <tbody> elements that each defines a row group.

Table with two tier headers

In the table below, there are two pairs of column headers. Each pair of column headers, “Produced” and “Sold” is associated with a first-level header that identifies the pair: “Mars” and “Venus”. These first-level headers are made to span two columns by using the colspan attribute with the value of 2.

The column structure needs to be defined at the beginning of the table to associate first-level headers correctly with all cells of both columns. A <col> element identifies each column, beginning on the left. If a header spans two or more columns, use a <colgroup> element instead of that number of <col> elements, and the number of columns spanned is noted in the span attribute.

Also, the value of the scope attribute in the first-level headers is set to colgroup so that it is associated with the entire group of columns. The second-level headers only apply to the corresponding column, so the scope attribute is set to col as shown in previous examples.

Example:
Mars Venus
Produced Sold Produced Sold
Teddy Bears 50,000 30,000 100,000 80,000
Board Games 10,000 5,000 12,000 9,000
Code snippet:
<table>
  <col>
  <colgroup span="2"></colgroup>
  <colgroup span="2"></colgroup>
  <tr>
    <td rowspan="2"></td>
    <th colspan="2" scope="colgroup">Mars</th>
    <th colspan="2" scope="colgroup">Venus</th>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <th scope="col">Produced</th>
    <th scope="col">Sold</th>
    <th scope="col">Produced</th>
    <th scope="col">Sold</th>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <th scope="row">Teddy Bears</th>
    <td>50,000</td>
    <td>30,000</td>
    <td>100,000</td>
    <td>80,000</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <th scope="row">Board Games</th>
    <td>10,000</td>
    <td>5,000</td>
    <td>12,000</td>
    <td>9,000</td>
  </tr>
</table>

Note: A <colgroup> element can contain a <col> element to identify individual columns in the group. The combined sum of <col> elements (not contained in <colgroup> elements) and column elements indicated by the span attributes of the <colgroup> elements should be equal to the total number of columns in the table.

Table with headers spanning multiple rows or columns

In the example below, the table consists of two individual columns and one column group spanning three columns. It has six rows. Two headers that span multiple rows. To make sure that such header cells that span multiple rows are correctly associated with all the cells in those rows, the rows must be grouped. To define row groups wrap the corresponding rows in <tbody> elements (table body). Additionally, the scope attribute of header cells spanning rows has to be set to rowgroup.

If a header spans multiple header rows, wrap the rows in a <thead> element instead of a <tbody> element. Use a <tfoot> element if a header spans multiple rows in the footer area of a table.

Due to the complexity of the table a summary technique could be used to describe the layout of the table in detail.

Example:
Poster availability
Poster name Color Sizes available
Zodiac Full color A2 A3 A4
Black and white A1 A2 A3
Sepia A3 A4 A5
Angels Black and white A1 A3 A4
Sepia A2 A3 A5
Code snippet:
<table>
  <caption>
    Poster availability
  </caption>
  <col>
  <col>
  <colgroup span="3"></colgroup>
  <thead>
    <tr>
      <th scope="col">Poster name</th>
      <th scope="col">Color</th>
      <th colspan="3" scope="colgroup">Sizes available</th>
    </tr>
  </thead>
  <tbody>
    <tr>
      <th rowspan="3" scope="rowgroup">Zodiac</th>
      <th scope="row">Full color</th>
      <td>A2</td>
      <td>A3</td>
      <td>A4</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <th scope="row">Black and white</th>
      <td>A1</td>
      <td>A2</td>
      <td>A3</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <th scope="row">Sepia</th>
      <td>A3</td>
      <td>A4</td>
      <td>A5</td>
    </tr>
  </tbody>
  <tbody>
    <tr>
      <th rowspan="2" scope="rowgroup">Angels</th>
      <th scope="row">Black and white</th>
      <td>A1</td>
      <td>A3</td>
      <td>A4</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <th scope="row">Sepia</th>
      <td>A2</td>
      <td>A3</td>
      <td>A5</td>
    </tr>
  </tbody>
</table>

Note: Using <thead>, <tbody> and <tfoot> in every table, even if there are no headers spanning columns may avoid confusion on when to use them.

These tutorials provide best-practice guidance on implementing accessibility in different situations. This page combined the following WCAG 2.0 success criteria and techniques from different conformance levels:

Techniques: