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Learning CW, it just doesnt stick!

Discussion in 'Straight Keys - CW Enthusiasts' started by SA7CNG, May 21, 2020.

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  1. SA7CNG

    SA7CNG Ham Member QRZ Page

    I have tried learning CW several times during the last years. I spent hours on slow night shifts listening to CW trying to learn. I tried all sorts of different tools, this time i am using the G4FON program and the Koch method.

    Some how, i cant manage to learn more than two or three letters. As soon as more letters are blended into the code im completely lost. I am also a slow writer, i cant really write 15 speed with a pen and paper, so i tried copying in my mind also, but it doesnt work.

    Since i really would like to be able to use CW, this leavs me really frustrated. Since i am completely tone death, and had a very hard time learning languages in school(basicly failed all language courses, while managing the others with average results), i was sort of expecting learning CW to be difficult. But not impossible, like it feels now.

    How long time is it reasonble to expect it would take a person to be able to copy the first 4 letters in Koch method, in 15 speed? I have nothing to compare with, but i have spent several hours, and have made basicly no progress what so ever.
    KK6BNF likes this.
  2. K9CPO

    K9CPO Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    KD8EDC, K8BZ, WB5YUZ and 2 others like this.
  3. KM4DYX

    KM4DYX Ham Member QRZ Page

    I feel for you. Learning Morse was a slog for me, too, and I'm not truly proficient at it, still.

    The pure Koch method can be a bit overwhelming. What I settled on was the Koch method with Farnsworth timing, i.e., increased spacing between characters. So keep the character speed at 15 wpm but slow down the timing between characters to give yourself enough time to recognize and copy down what you heard.

    Start with two characters, such as letter A and letter B, until you you achieve 90% correctness then add another. Don't worry about speeding up until you've got the alphabet and numbers down.

    I know that it can be frustrating, I really do, but IT DOES COME. Hang tough!

  4. KA0HCP

    KA0HCP XML Subscriber QRZ Page


    Here are a few suggestions:

    1. As we get older it becomes more difficult to learn new information and tasks. This increases past age 45-50 years. However, repetition, and motivation can help compensate.

    2. Repetition. More frequent sessions are more effective than long sessions.

    3. Attention span. Keep training sessions short enough to maintain your attention. 10-20 minutes is a good length. If your mind wanders or you feel a "break" in your concentration stop the session. Continuing past your attention span only causes negative reinforcement which causes frustration.

    4. Accuracy, not speed! Speed is unimportant in learning. Turn down the speed of automated senders/software.

    5. Use different methods, techniques, mix up learning methods. Despite the many 'experts" individuals respond differently. What works for one person may not for another. There is no 'correct" way. At bottom, memorizing the dash-dot pattern and counting them at five words per minute has worked for hundreds of thousands of radio ops worldwide for 120 years.

    6. Get a 'code buddy" to practice with!

    Keep at it! 73, bill
    W9RAC and AG6QR like this.
  5. WB2WIK

    WB2WIK Platinum Subscriber Platinum Subscriber QRZ Page

    There's a wonderful book that's part of my library entitled, "You Can't Teach A Kid to Ride A Bike At A Seminar," by David H. Sandler.

    Learning Morse Code (which is what you're describing, it's not "CW" -- that's a mode) without actually using it creates the same problem: Trying to learn something by watching it or listening to it, rather than using it. I doubt anyone learned to ride a bicycle that way, or to ski or to surf or do lots of things that require hands-on practice and really can't be learned by observation.

    IMO, learning the code while writing it down not only wastes time but is a handicap. I can copy 40-50 words per minute but can't write anywhere near that fast, never could and never will. But I started out "listening" to the rhythm and pattern of each letter without writing anything, and just identifying each letter by its unique rhythm. Had all 26 letters nailed after a couple of days. Did not know how to "send" yet, as I never tried that but later did and found that's its own unique talent! Took quite a while to get any good at sending.

    I'd encourage you to try the "buddy method" if at all possible; that is, learning along with someone else, sending back and forth to each other and eventually it will click. In my 50+ years experience using the code every day, and having taught a whole lot of "code classes" back when that was actually a licensing requirement, I found "sending" the code does definitely help with "receiving" it, and learning the rhythm of each letter, which eventually leads to hearing the rhythmic patterns of words and more. Might help in your case.

    I stink at languages also.:p
    N7BKV likes this.
  6. WN1MB

    WN1MB Ham Member QRZ Page

    I advise not doing this. No matter how slow the night shift is, you're still at work, and your attention is compromised at best. I won't get into the disservice you're doing to your employer...

    Learning Morse requires intense concentration. Ideally blindfolded. I sat in a pitch black room learning Morse characters and numbers to avoid visual distractions and wore headphones to avoid aural distractions.

    Seriously consider changing your "classroom."
    W4KYR, K8BZ and W9RAC like this.
  7. W6MK

    W6MK Ham Member QRZ Page

    Good suggestions. I would add:

    Attention span: void any kind of multi-tasking or competing sound or
    any sensory input other than what you are listening to. Trying to learn code
    while you are at work, however slowed-down the work, is not at all a good approach.

    Accuracy not speed: study individual code characters at a sufficiently-slow
    speed so that you can recognize each character and not confuse one character with another.
    If you can only do this at 5 wpm, then you must listen at 5 wpm until you have learned all
    the characters. Increase speed only as you can recognize that two characters are not the same.

    Use different methods: there are lots of unfounded recommendations about how to learn
    Morse Code. There is a completely-irresponsible notion that you can learn faster this way
    or that way.

    You can only learn at the pace at which you actually learn and retain what you've learned.

    It seems obvious the the Koch method does not work for you

    Try new things until you find something that definitely allows you to progress. A few sessions with a new method should tell you whether or not it works for you.

    A fundamental principle of all learning is to begin slowly and then progress to higher speed.
    There is, for most of us, no reliable shortcut to learning anything. It always takes time.

    Get a code buddy: one of the most important principles of learning is that it is greatly-enhanced
    when it is social. Humans are essentially social beings. We learn in many ways, but much of
    our learning is by imitation, by observing how others learn. That's why formal education
    depends on students in classes.

    Your hearing deficit may well be relevant to your struggle with learning. Code is essentially
    not tone-based but rhythm-based. If you can understand basic rhythms code will be very easy
    to learn. Languages, with which you have struggled, are not comparable to Morse Code, despite
    the uninformed palaver about Morse Code being another language. Morse Code is not a language,
    it is simply an alternative way of sounding out our ordinary letters and numbers. Instead of saying
    "A" we say, in Morse Code, "di-dah."
    KA0HCP likes this.
  8. KD1JT

    KD1JT Ham Member QRZ Page

    It will! I was QRT in 2004-ish Due to health issues and workload. Packed up my station In boxes. This week I decided with nice weather I’d go QRP portable in the back yard. Now it’s been at least 15 yrs since my last CW contact, I used to be pretty skilled and fast, handling traffic and all that. I listened, and listened, and listened. 1st contact was F6HKA ... and I got him, or more accurately, he got me. Two days later I’m almost up to speed again!

    Learning CW As an intellectual exercise doesn’t work. You have to USE it, at very least WANT to use it. You have that covered. When I think of my first CW QSOs, I marvel how those poor bastards must have suffered! Lol

    Find another teaching method. Or better, find an elmer. I had two when I got started, one (WS1J, late W1CNY, now SK) gave me my first HF rig, but kept the mic! Bob introduced me to Fred (W1CKV,
    i just discovered he is now SK, too) a rabid CW op, with whom I spent FD nights on 40m CW (with a bottle of Scotland’s finest) sharing operating and logging.

    I, and many other CW ops, would jump at the chance to elmer a newcomer who had the desire to learn.
    Last edited: May 21, 2020
  9. KJ5T

    KJ5T Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    As someone who faced many of your same challenges in the past which discouraged me. Learning languages for me is very difficult, I have been trying to learn Spanish on and off for years. For many of us, when we struggle to do something well we get bored with it. It sounds like you are in the same boat I have been in the past, having a hard time with learning morse but with a deep desire to do so and get on the air with it.

    Here are my suggestions (repeats from above):

    1) Don't add new characters until you have the first ones down. This doesn't mean that you always have 100% copy but if you are struggling in the beginning focus on the letters you have trouble with before adding new ones.

    2) Total immersion works for many people, I am not saying burn yourself out but I found that installing an app on my phone (I have the Morse Trainer app on Android) can really help. I was struggling with "/" for some reason and so I used to app to just play a bunch of slashes until now when I hear the sound dah-dit-dit-dah-dit it is very musical for me and I know it is a slash.

    3) Head copy is hard when you are starting out but very important to focus on early on. One of the things I like about Lockdown Morse ( is there is an emphasis on head copy, when he does words in the early lessons he suggests not writing them down. And sure you will miss some at times, but eventually you will find that you will start to recognize certain words. I don't write all that fast either and I am certainly not very legible so I head copy is important. Apps like CW Trainer have word modes where it will send common words, this can help with head copy.

    4) I can't emphasize enough the comments several people have already made about limiting distractions. My advice is to get a good comfortable pair of headphones and a dedicated space for learning code. Overtime as you get better you may become one of those guys that can head copy while having a conversation, but until then remove distractions.

    5) Make it fun. Set challenges for yourself. Mix up the learning. I found doing random character code groups gets a little boring after a while. Check out, they have word training, callsign training and the usual letter groups, but also MorseMachine which is really a lot of fun, how fast can you process hearing a character and typing it.

    Once you are know all characters (numbers, letters, and ,./?) don't be afraid to start using it on the air, even if you are QRSs (really slow). Join a group like FISTS or SKCC and start having QSOs. I made my first CW QSO in 14 years with WB2WIK at the start of this month. It was a short QSO, quick exchange and QRS (slow) but you will find you quickly get better.

    I will add, once you do start learning. While I wouldn't put an emphasis on sending as most people can send faster than they can copy starting out I would encourage getting a code oscillator and doing some sending practice before you get on the air for the first time.

    I probably could come up with other things. In the end I used to be just like you, I am pretty sure I have made very similar threads in the past or comments such as yours. It isn't easy, and sometimes finding motivation to do things that are hard and come harder for some is very difficult but if you truly dedicate yourself you can become a CW operator. I don't know if I will ever ragchew at 30 or 40WPM, I do hope to be efficient enough for contesting at those speeds which may lead to my ability to ragchew at those speeds. You asked how long it should take, for some it takes months, for others years.

    Oh check out, great podcast and really helpful hints for beginners in some of the early episodes (maybe in later episodes too I only on episode 10).
    WN1MB likes this.
  10. AG6QR

    AG6QR Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    You've had good advice. I'll add mine:

    You can't force the code into your brain faster than your brain wants to take it. But you can ease it in, a bit at a time.

    Consistent practice, sustained over time, is key. Fifteen minute practice sessions, once a day, every day, should produce reasonable (not miraculous) progress. You can vary the timing somewhat, but the point is to train your brain a bit at a time, instead of all at once.

    Making those connections in the brain is somewhat like building muscles via exercise. Both require repeated small workouts, combined with rest periods in between. The rest periods are vital. You wouldn't expect to increase your ability to do push-ups much by doing just one single eight-hour workout of pure push-ups and other arm exercises. You'd just get sore (or worse). On the other hand, if you did five minutes of push-ups per day for ninety-six days, that works out to the same total of eight hours of exercise, but it would be much more productive.
    WN1MB likes this.

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