Resources & Comments On
Becoming Proficient
in
International Morse Code


by Paul H. Bock, Jr. - K4MSG, Hamilton, Virginia, January 23, 2009

        Despite FCC deregulation of the Amateur Radio code requirement, International Morse Code is still with us and is likely to be for some time to come. There are several reasons for this, among them being (a) the historic link between the code and the beginnings of ham radio in the first decade of the Twentieth Century; (b) the code’s usefulness under adverse operating conditions because a skilled operator can copy code through noise and interference when other modes fail; and (c) the “fun factor,” i.e., the fact that many operators find the code enjoyable to use. Unfortunately, too many amateurs become frustrated with trying to learn the code and, later on, with trying to improve their proficiency and build up speed. The purpose of this article is to identify resources that can help in the quest to become a (better) CW operator.

        Although this article is aimed principally at the radio amateur who has already learned the code and now wants to become better at it, the following web site – also referenced later simply as the “AC6V site” – provides a wealth of Internet links and useful information for any level of student of the International Morse Code.

                http://www.ac6v.com/morseprograms.htm

        This is one of the best Morse code training reference sites I’ve seen (though certainly not the only one), so if you’re trying to learn the code for the first time you’ll find links to lots of good tips and training methods to help you along. Note also that W1AW offers slow-speed code practice at 5, 7.5, 10, 13 and 15 WPM on Monday through Friday; the schedule is posted in QST.

CW DXING & CONTESTS

        In pursuing an improved ability to copy International Morse Code it is helpful to first decide what your “code goal” is, and for many radio amateurs the desire to copy code at high speed centers around DXing and contesting. In general, this skill level means being able to copy call signs, signal reports and some piece of required information such as grid locator, DX zone, state, county, etc. The typical speed range at which this information is exchanged usually runs around 30 to 35 WPM but it can be faster. Note that this particular skill level doesn’t involve “solid copy” of lines of text, it primarily means using the brain’s ability to focus intently on short, discrete “sound bites” that follow a generally prearranged format. For example, someone who can only copy “solid” at 13 to 15 WPM can successfully work DX and participate in contests at twice that speed or even higher simply by practicing on focusing the mind to “catch” the few necessary characters to complete an exchange in a known format. In essence, it involves intense concentration but only for a very short period of time as opposed to the “solid copy” skill level of following flowing text for many minutes while committing it to written copy.

        One of the best available tools for training in the art of high-speed DXing and contesting using CW is a software program called RufzXP that can be found at the following Internet link:

                http://www.rufzxp.net/

        The way the RufzXP program works is best described by quoting from the web page:

        “RufzXP sends a chosen number of random selected true amateur radio calls (50 by default) to be typed into the keyboard. After key has been pressed, the computer gives its next call. If the call has been copied correctly, the transmitting speed increases, if not, it decreases. In this way software automatically adapts transmitting speed to user's maximum performance.”

        RufzXP has been and is being used by a number of LARG members, especially those active in contesting.

BEYOND CONTESTING: BECOMING A HIGH-SPEED CW OPERATOR

        For those truly interested in being able to make consistently solid copy of continuous text and/or coded groups at 20 WPM or more the skill development process is more lengthy and requires a higher degree of perseverance on the part of the trainee than the “call sign + signal report, hello/goodbye” type of CW exchange typical of contests and DX pile-ups. It requires daily practice – NOT daily QSOs but DAILY PRACTICE - using practice material of ever-increasing difficulty and speed. Anything less is self-defeating. It also requires a willingness to experiment with different forms of training to find what works best. No matter what you may have read elsewhere and no matter what “endorsements” a particular code training method may have received, the truth is that NO SINGLE CODE LEARNING METHOD WORKS BEST FOR EVERYONE! For this reason, the trainee should be willing to try different approaches and even use combinations of several approaches “in parallel,” eventually rejecting those that don’t work as well and focusing on those that yield the best results. As already mentioned, an excellent web site to use for information on code training as well as links to resources in many code training methods is the AC6V site (see the link above).

        For on-line code practice I really like the AA9PW site at the following link:

                http://aa9pw.com/morsecode/

        This site allows you to set the speed anywhere from 3 to 50 wpm, set the Farnsworth rate (described below) and choose from a variety of code practice formats including letters, numbers, punctuation, call signs, random words, newspaper headlines, QSOs and sample FCC tests.

        I should mention that I have chosen a speed of 20 to 25 WPM to define the lower limit of “high-speed CW operation” primarily because this speed range is used for commercial radio telegraph operator licensing, i.e., 20 and 25 WPM plain text copy for the 2nd class and 1st class licenses, respectively. However, the European-based High Speed Club has a membership requirement of a minimum of five 30-minute or longer QSOs with other members of the club at a speed of at least 25 WPM, so this speed is usually considered the lower limit of true high-speed radio telegraphy.

        Just for general information, speed requirements in the various “speed clubs” originated in Germany and now popular throughout Europe and the rest of the world are:

                High Speed Club (HSC): 25 WPM
                Very High Speed Club (VHSC): 40 WPM
                Super High Speed Club (SHSC): 50 WPM
                Extremely High Speed Club (EHSC): 60 WPM

        Further information on these clubs and their requirements can be found at the following web site:

                http://www.morsecode.nl/hscn.html

PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS ON CW TRAINING

        The following are some personal observations on code speed-building approaches that I have found to be helpful.

        1. DAILY PRACTICE: To get the maximum benefit from code practice at any level you must be willing to put in a MINIMUM of 10 to 30 minutes a day in practice. Two or more such sessions at different times of the day will yield excellent results, but beware of over-doing it because long sessions will tire you out unnecessarily and at some point you’ll pass a point of diminishing returns. Incidentally, the 10 to 30 minutes per session regimen fits well with the W1AW code practice sessions described below.

        2. “HEAD COPYING”: This is the ability to sit back and copy what is being sent in such a way that one is following the flow of the words and sentences without writing anything down, just the way one would listen to someone speaking (except perhaps to jot down an important item like the other operator’s name, rig, or some interesting tidbit of information on which you intend to comment when it’s your turn to “talk”). I have found that practice in this technique at speeds several WPM higher than the speed at which I am trying to achieve perfect copy has a definite positive effect on improving overall code-copying ability.

        One way to practice this is by having continuous random words sent at high speed; for this I occasionally use the MFJ Pocket Morse Code Tutor (Model MFJ-418), a small portable device that I can carry around in my pocket. It has a built-in speaker but I generally use a small earpiece.

        Both random words and current newspaper headlines are available on the AA9PW on-line code generator web page mentioned above. To use newspaper headlines select the "Copy RSS headlines from" bullet and then select one of the news media sources. The more obtuse the words being sent the better, such as using "BBC World: Nature" (nature & conservation headlines) or "Motley Fool" (business headlines), because this helps keep you from “guessing” words before they’re completely sent as sometimes happens with “national news” headlines. Start by just copying the headlines in your head and then check to see what was sent by clicking on the appropriate bullet. When you get to 90% accuracy, raise the code speed.

        3. FARNSWORTH: The Farnsworth method involves setting the “letter speed” higher than the “word speed;” for example, using a Farnsworth (letter speed) setting of 25 WPM while copying at a word speed of 20 WPM. As noted on the AC6V web page, EVERY PROFESSIONAL CODE-TRAINING PROGRAM HAS USED THIS METHOD!”

        4. WIAW CODE PRACTICE: W1AW sends code practice on Monday through Friday with the schedule published in QST. High-speed practice at 35, 30, 25, 20, 15, 13 and 10 WPM is sent in descending order and I highly recommend practicing “head copy” starting at 35 WPM and proceeding downward until the next highest speed is reached from the one at which you’re is trying to master perfect copy. Try writing down the copy at this next higher speed regardless of how little you get or how many mistakes you make; for example, if you’re working on mastering accurate copy at 20 WPM try writing down everything sent at 25 WPM. When the session shifts to the lower speed that you’re trying to master it will almost sound slow in comparison to what you’ve been trying to copy at the higher speed. When you reach 90% accuracy at your current desired copying speed, shift everything up to the next highest levels.

        5. W1AW BULLETINS: If you want to get a real feel for the skill of a professional CW operator, practice copying the daily CW bulletins from W1AW which are sent at 18 WPM. The schedule is listed in QST as part of the Code Practice Schedule. Obviously, once you’re competent at 20 WPM the bulletins are too slow to be of any training value but they are a good way to “keep your hand in” when you’ve been away from CW for a while. I’ve found that just sitting and listening to the bulletins using “head copy” while tinkering in the shack is a great way to help the code to become “second nature,” just like talking.

        6. PRACTICE QSOs: Most general-purpose code training programs offer practice QSOs. For the newer CW operator these are useful because they help “program” you to carry on typical QSOs on the air; however, if your goal is to become a truly skilled CW operator you’ll eventually have to move beyond these “canned” formats.

        7. ON-THE-AIR QSOs: Like the practice QSO, the on-the-air QSO provides only a limited amount of “good practice” because the format is fairly predictable and often the code is not that well sent. However, it can be helpful in developing the ability to copy code through interference, static crashes, etc., so it develops “operator skill” even if its usefulness in “speed skill” training is limited. It can also help you to learn to copy badly-sent code, which is useful SO LONG AS YOU RECOGNIZE IT AS BADLY SENT and don’t start trying to mimic it yourself.

        8. W1AW QUALIFYING RUN: Finally, if you wish you can "reward" yourself by copying the W1AW Qualifying Run (sent a couple of times a month) and earning a Certificate of Code Proficiency. You might want to start with the 10 wpm qualification and then strive for endorsement stickers at 15, 20, 25, etc. If you're like me, you may THINK that you can copy at a certain speed only to discover that putting yourself to the "test" is a big disappointment! But that just means you have to work a little harder.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?

        While a majority of operators who can copy 13 to 15 WPM can use RufzXP to become functional at 30 WPM in a DX pileup or contest environment in a few weeks, true competence as a high-speed CW operator requires real dedication and can take from several weeks to several months depending on the individual. It can also deteriorate fairly quickly if not used on a regular basis. I cannot over-emphasize the need to practice EVERY DAY, and this is true whether you’re working your way up the speed ladder for the first time or trying to climb back up that ladder after a long period of inactivity (although in the latter situation it usually takes much less time overall to get your competency back).

        Despite the effort required, becoming a competent high-speed CW operator is a unique skill and developing this ability will not only make your operating more fun, it will help you to understand and appreciate the communications legacy that the code represents.

        Best Regards, Paul Bock - K4MSG de Hamilton, Virginia

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