A semi-annual rant about learning CW

I have been seeing this posted more and more on CW minded Facebook pages:

This is the worst! Yuck! Argh! Ack! Ptooey!

Please take my word for it! As I've told so many times before, I know the frustration of not being able to learn CW. I put off getting my license for at least five years (maybe more), because I could not wrap my brain around the code. And one of the major reasons for that lack of brain wrapping was because someone thought that they were doing me a good turn by handing me a chart similar to the one above.

From personal experience, I can tell you that making the jump from audio input to visual input to brain is the perfect recipe for frustration and resignation. I made the mistake of hearing, trying to visualize and then decode.  What you need to do is skip that visual step. Morse Code is a heard language, and unless you're in the Navy operating signal lamps, it's primarily an aural language. To this day, I have extreme difficulty (in fact, I don't even bother) when people "type" out cutsie messages using periods and hyphens to make dits and dahs in print. I have to hear it to de-code. No ifs, ands or buts ..... I have to hear it.

Think about it for a second.  When you were a baby, how did you learn to talk - by reading, or by listening to your parents and siblings?

So thanks be to God for the Hams who taught my Novice class. They handed me a set of ARRL Morse Code cassettes with only one word of instruction - LISTEN! And in the end, that's what did it, but the damage had already been done. I had to "unlearn" my past efforts and had to re-learn the direct step of "hear, then de-code".  For me, that damage lasted well past 5 WPM.  I was stuck at the 10 WPM barrier for a long time, and it was only by the Grace of God that I was able to get up to 13 WPM within 6 months in order to earn my General ticket.

So my advice for those wishing to learn Morse?

1) Ditch any visual aids, as if they were a rattlesnake or the plague.

2) Listen to letters being generated at a speed of anywhere from 13-18 WPM. Let the spacing between the letters determine the code speed. If you listen to Morse being generated slowly and drawn out, you're more than likely going to suffer the 10 WPM plateau like I did.

3) Limit your dedicated practice sessions to no more than 15-20 minutes a pop - two sessions a day, max. At other times, I find it helpful to have Morse playing quietly, almost subliminally in the background while driving, doing chores, etc. IMHO, it gets your brain used to hearing it, and before you know it, you're going to be picking out characters without even realizing it. Lastly, I never liked the concept of listening to random characters once I learned the alphabet.  From then on, I found it most useful to listen to actual words and not letter groups. Let's face it, unless you're a spy, you're going to be on the air making conversation - not sending clandestine messages.

4) Once you've learned all the characters and numbers and basic punctuation, and feel somewhat confident in being able to de-code, then get on the air and make QSOs. Real live QSOs are without a doubt, the best vehicle towards increasing your code speed. You can find a lot of beginners hanging out in the 7.120 MHz neighborhood of 40 Meters.

5) Relax, and don't get down on yourself. We all learn things at different speeds. Some people are quick studies and then there are people like me. But if you stick with it, you will get it - I promise.

6) Make full use of W1AW code practice and all the free CW learning software that's out there. Personally, I keep "Morse Trainer" by Wolphi on my phone. It's not a free app, you have to pay for it, but it will generate Morse at speeds up to 60 WPM.  I keep it set at 40 WPM.  Can I de-code Morse that fast? No way in heck! But I can tell you that after listening (JUST listening - not even trying to decipher) code at that speed for 15 minutes .... code sent at 25 or 28 WPM sounds a lot slower than it used to.

I suffered the double whammy. I had to "unlearn" the aural to visual to brain process; and then once I actually learned the code, I had to unlearn the "code letters sent at 5 WPM" error.  Look at me now - CW is my most preferred mode and I am comfortable anywhere around the 25 WPM mark! On a good day, if I don't tense up, I can go for short bursts of 30 -35 WPM. The bottom line is, that learning and becoming proficient with Morse Code is not impossible, in most cases.

Take it from someone who thought it was.

72 de Larry W2LJ
QRP - When you care to send the very least!
Larry Makoski, W2LJ, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from New Jersey, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

13 Responses to “A semi-annual rant about learning CW”

  • Petr Ok2sps:


    Nice mnemonic tool! Gl 73 dx petr

  • Pete...K4BKD:

    Good article Larry! I must admit that I never had trouble learning the code. I got Novice back in ’59 when I was in Boy Scouts with several other hams. Needless to say we won all the signaling competitions with other troops! I have also played the drums since high school and I think that is an advantage as well because I have a good sense of rhythm.

    Just a few comments.

  • Roger G3XBM:

    When I was first taught CW it was using a visual method. I agree – skip this as it was NO HELP at all.

  • w3fis, Paul:

    Good advice. If the bands are dead, then use that as a practice session. Most modern transceivers will function as “code practice” oscillators. 10-15 minute session idea is good. Use any convenient text. There are a couple of excellent books out there on Morse Code. When you are copying maybe 90% at some convenient speed, simply get on the air. If they send too fast, then “QRS.” If they won’t slow down, then don’t talk to them. Major problem I have found if I request a QRS is that they slow down the characters themselves, and screw up the timing badly… SKCC is useful. Hang out around 7112 and there are plenty of people who will slow down. Try to get on/practice once a day.

    73 /paul W3FIS

  • David WB4ONA:

    There are “experts” out there selling “Aids” to help you with learning the code; some even claim to be experts in human psychology & learning. These products try to teach by instructing you to first recognize individual letters and numbers. This is absolutely WRONG – and the technique may actually harm your ability to pick up the code!

    The best technique is to listen to actual words being sent in simple sentences. You begin to pick out commonly used letters, and then move on to whole words.

    Copying Morse is like listening to someone speak. You recognize words, not the individual letters that make up the words. Best 73’s

  • Scott W9VHE:

    I have the same problem you had, mnemonics for the letters. Still got to 13 WPM for General, but that’s fast as I got. Still working on it, like you said, listen to code faster than you can copy.

  • John/N6VTS:

    Highly recommend the Koch Trainer on iPAD/iPhone. Also G4FON. Both allow setting the character speed and wpm separately. Setting the higher character speed forces the listener to recognize the patterns and not count the dots and dashes.

    I volunteer as NCS for Colorado ARES Corrosion Control Network (CACCN) which motivates me to get on the air and practice off the air. Practice mode on FT-857 and IC-706 are very handy.

    From one who years ago struggled for over a year to get to 13 wpm and had to take the General theory again…it can be done…but once you get it…use it. I got over that hurdle then did not use it again for nearly 30 years!

    Good Luck…gotta be good for combatting Alzheimers!

    73, John/N6VTS

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    In 1963 there were little code aids. I learned the wrong way. 5 wpm was not great.. Being on the air helped somewhat, but decoding the dots and dash and building a character was not the right way, but the only way I knew. Novice licenses were one year or you lost you call. No tech plus…But I went tech, since it was the General test in those days and @ 5 WPM. Fast forward many decades I was stuck as a tech. Got my General by default, so to speak. Pasted my Extra first shot. But CW was not in my life. The past couple years I have unlearned my code also and relearned it. I can copy 5-10 WPM 100%, 11-15 WPM about 75% and 20 WPM hit and miss, probably 25% and getting better. I have a el cheapo Android tablet and run a program called “CW Trainer”. One feature I use most nights now is a feature that will take a text file and send it at the speed you choice (speed, tone, spacing, number of loops, etc). Because of this feature I copy words.. Oh it should be noted on my unleaning and relearning I have made it a point to do it all in my head and not on paper. So when I say I am copying 5-10 wpm or 11-15 wpm, I am copying words and building sentences in my head…most of the time.. On the air, it is paper only to write name, qth, RST etc. I still fumble since my on the air time is still been limited. But if you listen to code everyday for any limited time, it will sink in. If I can do it anyone can.

    73 Harry K7ZOV and once upon a time KN7ZOV (man that was long ago)

  • peter kg5wy:

    Harry, Thanks for your bio. I am proud of you.
    (I counted 15 “I”s)

  • Les kd2bfp:

    Thank you all for your comments. As an old (chronologically) but new ham that would like to learn CW, I found your idea thought provoking. I always wanted to learn CW just for the sake of learning it. At one time many many years ago I thought of taking the Ham test but didn’t spend the time to learn CW. Since they removed CW from the requirements and made the tech and general exams a memorization game I found getting my ham ticket was just a matter of sitting at my computer and taking practice exams until I consistently got 85% or better. I still want to learn CW and because of your comments, I will make every effort to work on it this winter. Thanks again for the inspiration.
    73, Les

  • Duško E77CW:

    Well, as in any other “business”, a man should have a bit of talent for CW. No matter if talent presents 10% and hard work 90%.
    It took me a little bit more than 3 months to copy at the speed of 15 WPM, (on a practice oscillator), but when I got on the air, even lower speeds were problem, because my ears were not used to the noise. So I say that listening to CW on air is THE BEST WAY FOR IMPROVING MORSE SKILLS!
    I spent hours and hours listening to few Italian high-speed rag-chewers on 40m, guys were spraying Morse at the speeds of 40-50 WPM. At first, my brain could copy only few words, but gradually my speed got higher and now copying text at 40 WPM is not a big problem at all (After 4 years on the air). I enjoy a good high-speed rag-chew more than anything. Speaking of the software, RufzXP by DL4MM&IV3XYM and Morse Runner by VE3NEA are really good tools for speed training. They may not be suitable for the beginners, but still are good pieces. For learning CW, I recommend JustLearnMorseCode by LB3KB. Small, easy-to-install and totally free program.

    Duško E77CW, and also KD2JOF for few days more (pending K2ECJ)……

  • Tim - AB2ZK:

    Great article Larry!
    Point of information- Morse Trainer by Wolphi is only available for Android devices at this time. Drat!!!

  • KG7OWO:

    This really makes sense. We all learn language by sound. It is agreed to, that sound is the best way to learn any language. Back when in middle school, they had two amateur operators come to science class. They both had Been radio operators in the navy during ww2. They told us that they had been using CW for so long that all they heard was words. So I believe your assertion to be correct. Paul KG7OWO Willamette valley Oregon

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