Working with the DOM

Peter Reznick
Jun 19, 2017 · 8 min read

This is the fourth in a series of posts on JavaScript, and covers the Document Object Model and interacting with it using JavaScript. This post was originally published here.

These notes draw on Launch School’s course materials, MDN’s DOM documentation, and this great video on JavaScript’s event cycle.


The DOM (Document Object Model) is an in-memory object representation of an HTML document that provides a way to interact with the web page using JavaScript. A DOM is a hierarchy (or tree) of nodes, with the document node as the root.

document.querySelector(selector) or document.getElementById(id) are the quickest ways to query the web page for element-type nodes using pure JavaScript.

var a = document.querySelector('a');
var header = document.getElementById('page-heading');

There are many different types of nodes, but the most commonly encountered types in web development are element, text, and comment. Element nodes represent HTML elements, while text nodes hold the text content of the markup. Comments, unsurprisingly, represent comments.

Node Properties

Every node has a set of properties that can be used to determine the node’s type as well as get a variety of other useful information. Some of the more useful properties on element nodes are:

  • nodeName: for elements, a string that represents the uppercase element name.

Determining Node Type

In the console, the best way to determine a node’s type is to call toString() on the node or pass it into the String constructor:

p.toString(); // "[object HTMLParagraphElement]"
String(p); // "[object HTMLParagraphElement]"

For some element types (like anchors), these string methods return a custom result that doesn’t immediately reveal the node’s type. One means to get around this is to access the constructor property:

a.constructor; // function HTMLAnchorElement() { [native code] }

In code, the best way to ascertain a node’s type is using the instanceof method or tagName property:

p instanceof HTMLParagraphElement; // true
p.tagName === 'P'; // true

Traversing Nodes

DOM nodes possess properties that map relationships between them. Parent node properties:

|Parent Node Property|Value| | — -| — -| |firstChild|childNodes[0] or null| |lastChild|childNodes[childNodes.length - 1] or null| |childNodes|live collection of all child nodes|

Child node properties:

|Child Node Property|Value| | — -| — -| |nextSibling|parentNode.childNodes[n+1] or null| |previousSibling|parentNodes.childNodes[n-1] or null| |parentNode|Immediate parent of receiver node|

Element-type parent node properties:

|Parent Element Property|Value| | — -| — -| |firstElementChild|children[0] or null| |lastElementChild|children[children.length - 1] or null| |children|live collection of all child elements| |childElementCount|children.length|

NB: Element-type parent node properties aren’t available on document in IE; use document.body.

Walking the Tree

Walking the tree refers to visiting all of the nodes subordinate to a given node in the hierarchy and performing some action for each of them. This is often accomplished with a recursive function:

function walk(node, callback) {

for (var i = 0; i < node.childNodes.length; i += 1) {
walk(node.childNodes[i], callback);

walk(document, function(n) {

The code above, for example, would visit every node in the document and output the nodeName property.

Element Attributes

Every element-type DOM node has an interface for accessing and setting its attributes:

|Method|Description|Value| | — -| — -| — -| |getAttribute(attr)|Retrives value of attribute attr|String val of attr| |setAttribute(attr, newValue)|Sets value of attr to newValue|undefined| |hasAttribute(attr)|Checks whether the element has attr|boolean|

NB: the id attribute can be read and written directly with id.

The class attribute has a special interface, classList, a property that holds a reference to an array-like object called DOMTokenList. We can call add(name), remove(name), toggle(name), etc. on classList to manipulate the class attribute more easily.

The style attribute has a similar interface, accessed through the style property, that lets us get and set styles (in camelCase format) directly:; // '' = red;; // red

Finding DOM Nodes

The following methods (called on document) can be used to find DOM nodes. The methods that return multiple elements use DOM-specific collections, HTMLCollection or NodeList:

|Method|Returns| | — -| — -| |getElementById|The first element node with matching ID attribute val or null| |getElementsByTagName|all matching-tagged element nodes| |getElementsByClassName|all element nodes with matching classes| |querySelector|first element node that matches the CSS selector or null| |querySelectorAll|NodeList of element nodes matching the CSS selector|


The textContent property returns all of the element and its subordinate nodes' text, and can also be used as a setter. The setter property is highly destructive, however, replacing all subordinate nodes with a single text node.

// "Assessment 249 will test your knowledge on JavaScript and general Front End Programming."
document.querySelector('p').textContent = "Boom!";
// "Boom!"

Creating and Moving DOM Nodes

Note that a given node cannot exist in the DOM more than once; a node moved or inserted at a new location entails removal from the original location.

Creating New Nodes

|Node Creation Method|Returns| | — -| — -| |document.createElement(tagName)|A new element node| |document.createTextNode(text)|A new Text node| |node.cloneNode(deepCLone)|A copy of node, with subordinate nodes as well if deepClone is true|

Adding New Nodes

|Parent Node Method|Description| | — -| — -| |appendChild(node)|Append node to the end of parent.childNodes| |insertBefore(node, targetNode)|Insert node into parent.childNodes before targetNode| |replaceChild(node, targetNode)|Remove targetNode from childNodes and insert node at its position|

Relative insertion:

|Insertion method|Description| | — -| — -| |element.insertAdjacentElement(position, newElement)|Inserts newElement at position relative to element| |element.insertAdjacentText(position, text)|Inserts Text node containing text at position relative to element|

position must be one of the following:

|Position|Description| | — -| — -| |beforebegin|Before the element| |afterbegin|Just inside the element, before first child| |beforeend|Just inside the element, after last child| |afterend|After element itself|

Removing Nodes

|Method|Description| | — -| — -| |node.remove()|Removes node from the DOM| |parent.removeChild(node)|Remove node from parent.childNodes|

Event Driven Programming in Front-end Development

Web applications are primarily interfaces, and this interface code has two main tasks:

  1. Set up the user interface and display it,

The fact that the interface must wait for user action results in the asynchronicity of the JavaScript that listeners for and then handles user actions.


The event object represents any DOM-related event, be it generated by the user, by APIs, or by the page’s lifecycle. The event object contains properties that provide context about the event and the action that triggered it.

Page Lifecycle Events

A number of events are triggered during the page’s lifecycle. Below is a simplified page-load order, with the timing of two common lifecycle events (DOMContentLoaded and load) indicated:

  1. HTML code received by browser from server

User Events

User events are organized by event-type, keyboard, mouse, touch, window, form, etc., each of which has particular events for specific user actions. A full reference list can be found here.

Adding Event Listeners

A event listener is a type of JS interface that is attached or registered on a node and waits for a particular kind of event to be fired on that node, upon which it invokes a specific function called the event handler.

The developer doesn’t interact directly with EventListener, but rather uses the DOM node method addEventListener, which creates the listener, registers it on the receiver node, called eventTarget, and specifies the handler, passing it an event object upon invocation:

eventTarget.addEventListener(eventType, eventHandler);

Below is code that registers a listener that will wait for the click event firing on document, and then will invoke a callback that will alert us of the fact:

document.addEventListener('click', function(event) {
alert(event.toString() + ' has been fired on document!');

A second approach to adding event listeners involves the use of GlobalEventHandler, which uses object property syntax to add the event handler as a property on the node. The code below is functionally equivalent to the code above:

document.onclick = function(event) {
alert(event.toString() + ' has been fired on document!');

Read more about event handlers and event listeners here.

Capturing and Bubbling

Capturing and bubbling refers to the pattern according to which events are propagated in the DOM tree. When some action occurs that triggers an event, the event is fired on every parent element of eventTarget until it fires on eventTarget (capturing), after which the process is reversed, with the event firing from eventTarget all the way back to the global object (bubbling).

By default, event listeners trigger on events during their target and bubbling phases. However, we can use an optional third argument in addEventListener, useCapture, to tell the listener to fire during the capture phase.

Preventing Propagation and Default Behaviors

Event propagation and defualt behavior (i.e., an anchor-type element node redirecting to the anchor’s href property) can be prevented by the event methods stopPropagation and preventDefault, each of which are typically called inside of an event handler.

The code below adds an event handler to each anchor element on the page, and prevents its default behavior:

var anchors = document.querySelectorAll('a');
anchors =;

anchors.forEach(function(anchor) {
anchor.addEventListener('click', function(event) {
alert("No dice.");

Event Delegation

In the example above, we had to gather every single anchor element on the page and register an event listener with each in order to achieve our desired behavior. This process is cumbersome, and as pages grow in size (and the number of event listeners does as well), the 1:1 ratio of listener to node becomes a performance drain. This problem can be addressed using Event Delegation, which exploits Capturing and Bubbling.

In event delegation, a single listener is added to a parent element of the nodes which we want to monitor, and fires on the desired event. Logic internal to the handler then only implements the desired behavior if the original event target ( is the desired type of element node. This process is seen below in code the replicates the behavior of our anchor listeners above, but with a single event listener registered on document:

document.addEventListener('click', function(event) {
if ( === 'A') {
alert("No dice.");
} else {
alert("Not an anchor!");

This approach sacrifices simplicity in the event handler in exchange for reducing the number of event listeners on the page.

The Event Loop in JS

See this video.

The Call Stack

JS is a single-threaded runtime, meaning that it can only process one piece of code at a time. The call stack tracks where we are in the program, with each function call being pushed onto the stack, with the topmost popped off after it is executed to return.


A blocking behavior is an item in the call stack that may potentially take a long time to complete, like a network request. These are often handled as asynch callbacks so that they don’t “freeze” the browser while waiting for completion.

Asynch Callbacks and the Call Stack

JS supplements the runtime with web APIs. These provide us with async functions like setTimeout.

After an async call is made, it is pushed onto the task queue. The job of the event loop is to continuously evaluate whether the call stack is empty. If it is, then the event loop removes the first item from the task queue and pushes it to the call stack, where it is executed.

For example:

setTimeout(function() {
}, 0);

will output:


because setTimeout, despite its delay time of 0, is executed by a Web API and its return value pushed onto the task queue. Only after the call stack is empty, that is, after all of the synchronous calls have been executed, is the async call executed.

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