HTML5 tags - how do they work, and which ones should I use?

6 minute readLast updated

Let's get down to the fundamentals. Whether you've seen HTML or not, it may feel unclear when to use each element, or even what elements are available these days. The following should be a helpful cheatsheet for web dev beginners and markup professionals alike!

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HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language, is a language used to define the "skeleton" of a webpage. It isn't meant to include any bells and whistles, and it definitely won't look pretty on its own! It's simply meant to define what gets shown on the page, from images to text and everything in between.

All modern browsers support the latest HTML standard: HTML5. This adds a whole host of features to improve the structuring of webpages. Namely, it adds special elements to denote the "layout" of the page, like where the navigation bar is, where the footer is, and so on. This is super useful for visually impaired individuals that rely on screen readers to browse the Internet, since it's now easier than ever to explain all the landmarks on the page right from the HTML!

When writing HTML, you will be working with something known as a tag. Basically, this is used to define some block of content you want to display on your website. There are many different tags you can use for different types of content, like blocks of text, images, headings, and so on.

For example, we can use the paragraph tag <p> to display a block of text like so:

  Hard work and no play makes Jack a dull paragraph.

Note that we need to right the tag twice: once to define where its content starts and again to define where it ends. In this case, it starts before our block of text (<p>) and ends just after our text block (</p>). Note you need an added / to denote a closing tag versus an opening tag. This whole block start to finish is called an element.

Along with declaring a tag, you can also add a set of attributes to that tag for extra information. These are written using the format attribute="value" inside the opening tag.

The class and id attributes are the most common, which will be explained better once we start using CSS. Another example is declaring the language used by your page with lang as shown below.

<html lang="en-US">
    <!-- More to come in here! -->

This is a basic wrapper you would always want to put around your HTML file. First, we create the base html element and specify our page's language using lang="en-US". Since anyone from Canada to Singapore may access the websites you build, it's best to specify the language so translation tools know what to expect!

Next, we add our body for all of our website's content to live. This is denoted by the body element. Also notice the <!-- … --> inside. This is how comments work in HTML, so whatever's inside those brackets won't be shown on the page.

Note: If you use CodePen, each Pen automatically adds these html and body wrappers for you around whatever code you put inside the "HTML" box, complete with the language specification. So, no need to use it on every CodePen you create, but know it's an important concept when building website outside of this tool!

There are many HTML tags worth knowing. You can find the full list here, but these are some highlights you should know for getting started 🏃‍♂️

  • <p> A paragraph block; the most general block when you want some text on the page

  • <h1> ... <h6> A header block, with h1 being the highest level header, h2 being the second highest, and so on. A newspaper article is a solid example of this, where the article title would be an h1, each section heading would be an h2, and each subheading would be an h3

  • ul / ol A block for creating a list of content. Use a ul when you want a bulleted (u nordered) list and an ol for a numbered (o rdered) list

    • li, or l ist i tem, for each element inside of the list
  • dl A block for creating a more complex list of content. This works a lot like a ul / ol, but now each item can have a title and a description as two separate blocks. Perfect for lists that have a header / body structure

    • dt The "definition title," or the title of a list item
    • dd The "definition description," or the content of that list item Note: No need for a wrapper around these two elements. Just place the dd element below its associated title dt, and the list item should look right! If you absolutely need to, it's safe to wrap these in a div for styling purposes.
  • <span> A wrapper around text within a paragraph or header. This is great for targeting certain lines or words in a text block for custom styling

  • <a href="https://penguin.club"> A weblink to some other website or a page within your own website. The link is specified by the href attribute

    Note: You can force links to open in a new tab instead of the current page by including the attribute target='_blank'

  • <img src="https://cute_cat.gif" alt="gif of a cat eating ice cream" /> An image, with the actual image file coming from the src link and the alt describing the image. You can read the alt when hovering over an image or when using a screen reader

  • <button> A button you can click. You'll use JavaScript to get buttons to actually do something, but we'll leave that as a mystery for now 😁

  • <header> A page header, often with the site banner and navigation bar
  • <footer> A page footer, often with important links that couldn't go anywhere else
  • <main> The main content area of a page. Helpful to separate from the header and footer
  • <nav> The navigation bar of a webpage (aka that ribbon at the top with all the links to other pages on the site). Usually within the <header>
  • <section> A sub-portion of the main content. Good for dividing up, well, sections of the page. Yes, nesting sections within sections works as well!
  • <div> A general way to define a container. You'll end up reaching for these when working on page layouts, trying to position content in certain places on the page

Generally, you'll use a <section> to group elements under common themes, like in a book report outline you'd write in high school. A <div>, meanwhile, is not used to convey this sort of separation. Take a news article as an example. We may say the article's content and the comments are two separate <section> elements. However, each comment, along with the container for like and dislike buttons, are just <div>s.

Hop over to codepen.io and make a new Pen. Start pasting some of the tags above into the HTML section to see what they display in the preview box!

Now, let's take a look at a completed website to see how the HTML is structured. We'll be using your browser's "inspector" for this, and you can follow along by visiting the live site at https://gsg.surge.sh. I encourage you to open this tool on some of your favorite website as well to see how they structure their own markup!

Intro to HTML - inspecting how a real website is structured! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4FK_7pZJV8

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Hand drawn portrait of Ben Holmes
is a web developer + UI designer by trade from Charleston SC. He's been tinkering with JavaScript and CSS since 2014, and has lead a full stack bootcamp curriculum used by universities across the country. Now, he's working fulltime at Peloton and teaching the world a bit of web whimsy in his spare time.