Document Object Model Tutorial

document object model tutorial

In the most recent episodes, we’ve been covering a lot of fundamentals of the JavaScript language. It’s time to shift gears just a little bit, and start looking at the DOM or Document Object Model. Our JavaScript code is attached to a webpage, and it is the webpage that comes first, not the script. Think of our webpage as the foundation for the house we will build upon, or the canvas we will paint upon. The DOM is what makes up our webpage, and it is by working with JavaScript in combination with the DOM, that we are able to reach into the page and modify it right from the client side of things. In other words, we can traverse the dom. Let’s jump in to the DOM now!

the document object model tutorial

What is the DOM

So just what is the Document Object Model? Well if you have read any explanations or tutorials, you’ll know it is filled with endless jargon and verbiage which sounds awfully confusing. I could tell you something like, “The DOM is an application programming interface which operates with well formed standards based HTML and associated components, and…” but these are just buzzwords. The concept of the DOM is actually fairly straightforward, let’s go through it one step at a time.

What is the Document?

Web Page: The Document portion of DOM is referring to the page. When you view an HTML file simply in notepad, or in an IDE with nice syntax highlighting, or through a web browser to see the rendered result, all instances are simply the Document. The page itself is the document.

What are Objects?

Pieces: The Object portion of the DOM is simply a thing, which may or may not contain something inside of it. When we look at a piece of HTML, and say, look at the head section, or the body section, or maybe even an unordered list or p tag – what we’re referring to are objects of the page. They are objects of the DOM.

What is the Model?

Agreed Upon Terms: The Model is a bit more generic in meaning, it is not a concrete thing, it is an idea. The Model is like the data or business abstraction of the Document. When we talk about all of the objects on the page in terms of specific HTML tags, nodes, child nodes, and parent nodes, we are speaking the same language. The model is the agreed upon set of terms and standards that describe exactly how we can interact with the pieces of a webpage. These rules work with any webpage there is, this is the importance of it.

What you can do with the DOM

By having a firm grasp of the DOM and by using JavaScript, we can accomplish many different things! Some examples include:

  • Get the third paragraph
  • Get the text of the title tag
  • Find the 5th link of a menu and change it’s css property to display:none
  • Modify the background color of all h1 tags with a class of priority
  • Grab all li tags within a ul
  • Find an image with an id of icon and shift it 30 pixels to the left
  • Modify a link so a JavaScript function fires upon being clicked
  • Generate a new div and insert it between the 4th and 5th paragraphs
  • And many many more!

Nodes and Elements

The DOM looks at itself in terms of Nodes. It may seem like each HTML element is a node, and while this is true, there is more to it. There are many types of nodes in the DOM, 12 in all. We’ll focus on just the first 3 since we can accomplish just about anything we need to with them. They are 1. Element Nodes, 2. Attribute Nodes, and 3. Text Nodes. Note: The numbers 1, 2, and 3 are the actual representation of Elements, Attributes, and Text Nodes in the DOM, they are not here just to list them numerically!

Node Types

Let’s take a look at a very simply example of HTML to show how and where these three node types come into play:

Viewing this another way, it may be represented by the following diagram:
document object model tutorial

This is pretty interesting. What we have here is the HTML you can see when you open the file or view the source code in a browser. The orange color items represent the actual HTML, and any text inside the HTML. The color coded boxes are more representative of the formal DOM structure. Black represents Element Nodes, Grey shows Attribute Nodes, and Blue is what depicts Text Nodes. You see, a picture is worth a thousand words!

Element Nodes Don’t Contain Text

This is an important point! You may be wondering, why go through all that trouble to show how these nodes and elements are represented? Well, in contrast to what it looks like when you view source HTML, Element Nodes do not Contain Text! It is only Text Nodes, which are children of their parent Element Nodes that contain any actual text. We need to understand this concept to effectively work with and modify the DOM as needed in our JavaScript programs.

How to Grab Element Nodes

Now we may ask ourselves, how can we grab one or more of these nodes to work with using JavaScript. Well the first thing we need to determine is if the node we’re trying to grab is unique. This is to say, does the element in our HTML have an id? Recall an id is unique, while a class can be applied many times.

Get an Element by ID

When we have an element on the page, we can use the following very common and possibly the most important method of the JavaScript language and that would be:


Often times the use case we’ll see with this method is by calling it, and assigning it’s result to a variable. That variable then acts like a handle into that specific point in the DOM. Think of it like opening a file, and this is the file handle so to speak. We can then use that variable to call methods on that element, read properties of the element, or change that element. This is not a copy of that element, we’ll be operating directly on that element within the DOM once we start calling methods on it. For example:

Get Elements by Tag

So what if we need to get more than one element? Here we can make use of the closely related method:


Now check out that this method here is using the plural version of Elements in the method name. That is because it expects to find many elements, since a given HTML tag will hardly be unique on a page. We could have many different div tags, or p tags, or a tags. With this method, it will scan the entire document and return any elements that match the selector. Using this method on the same HTML would produce this result:

Restricting Elements to Grab

In the example above we were grabbing all li elements on the page. Let’s say we had two sets of unordered lists on the page, and we only wanted to grab the child li elements from one of them. We can do that by using a combination of methods called on various objects. We are not limited to calling these methods only on the document itself. For example:

By having a command of the DOM, and what methods are available to operate on it, we are able to get anywhere in the page we need to be.

Changing the DOM

As we observed in the prior section, we found that reading information from the DOM using JavaScript is fairly straightforward. Now we will take a look at something a little more useful, and that is updating or changing the DOM in real time. The first thing you need to do in order to do this is to get the element first. You need this to have a handle into the DOM itself. It is not the attributes or text nodes we are interested in initially, we need the base element first, as attribute nodes and text nodes belong to element nodes. Get it? Got it. GOOD! Once you have it, then you can change it!

Modifying Attributes

Starting with the easiest thing we could do, let’s modify an attribute of some example HTML. We’ll be looking at two important methods for dealing with attributes.


someElement.setAttribute(‘id’, ‘newvalue’);

As ever, a demo is needed!

This code fetches the ul that has an id of domtut, logs out the captured value, then makes use of the setAttribute method to set a new id to that very element, and lastly logs out the new value that has been modified. So there you have it, 4 simple lines of code to show how to make use of the getAttribute and setAttribute methods.

Creating DOM Content

So let’s consider that in some of our prior example HTML, we did have some empty li elements. Let’s see if we can populate and empty HTML element using only JavaScript, I’m pretty sure we can do it! Recall we had 5 li elements in our domtut list. Only the first 3 were populated, but we can populate the last 2 right from JavaScript. Check this out:

Our updated HTML will now look like this with the last two list items now populated!

Creating Elements

We also have the ability to create elements and nodes on the fly, and populate as required. You probably wouldn’t want to do this, but you could construct an entire webpage using nothing but JavaScript! We are going to add another li element to our HTML and populate it as needed. First we’ll need to make use of a new method.


This is pretty cool, an li will be created into the world. Actually, it is created into the DOM, but our new li feels lost. He has no place in the world. We need to help him find where he should be. We can do this by making use of another new method.


So now that we have our newly created element, it must be appended somewhere into the DOM. This is how things would look so far:

If you run this snippet in firebug, you will see a new li item get added to that first list. In fact, start clicking run like a mad man and watch those li items keep getting generated and appended into the page like crazy! Don’t worry, once you have fun doing this, you can just refresh the browser and everything will be back to normal 🙂 This is a great example though of how to dynamically create, and then append items on the fly. Cool!

Creating Text Nodes

You’ll notice that we did in fact create a new li element on the page. In fact, maybe you did our little exercise and clicked run repeatedly if you have been drinking some nice fresh Starbucks. One thing that is missing however from our new li item is any data inside of it. It has no text. We could easily add dome test by simply setting the innerHTML property like so:

newlyCreated.innerHTML = 'Caffiene and Mocha!';

This does in fact work just fine, and you’ll see the page update in real time if you actually run the code. There is a bit of a more precise way to do this however, let’s check it out.

var newText = document.createTextNode(‘Caffiene and Mocha!’);


Our new script in full would look like this:

So yes, just setting the innerHTML property of the element may be a little quicker, but the second method of creating the text node and appending it in the DOM is the more formal and precise way to accomplish this.

Alternatives to appendChild

You may be up to your eyeballs in the DOM at this point, but there is one more thing we need to cover! We can insert elements into the DOM in more ways than one. Here is an alternate way to accomplish the same thing.

Whoa Nelly! What the heck is going on here? Let’s talk it through, as this helps to understand better.

  • Grab the parent element
  • Create a new element
  • Grab the element we want to insert our new element before. The getElementsByTagName method can be called on the document *or* theParent. The only difference is where in the DOM the handle starting point will be.
  • Insert the new element. Note! Unlike the previous step, we must use theParent to call the insertBefore method, it will not work otherwise!
  • Lastly, we simply create a text node, and then append it to our new li.

And with that friends, you have completed the Vegibit Crash Course on the Document Object Model! Congratulations 🙂