Reasonable amount of time to learn CW for a working adult

Discussion in 'Straight Keys - CW Enthusiasts' started by WA7ANT, Oct 15, 2017.

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  1. K8JD

    K8JD Ham Member QRZ Page

    You Never Stop Learning and Improving.
    Rule of thumb, the older you are, the longer it may take.
    I started learning Morse in Boy Scouts maybe around 12 and decided I wanted to get a radio license a few years later and started doing some serious CW SWL and getting radio and electronics books from the Library and learning from them.
    By the time I was 15 I had taken a few old radios and TVs apart to see what the guts looked like, built a few home brew project receivers, and 2 months after my 16th birthday I passed my Novice Exam and was ready to get my home brew transmitter on the air.
    So I can say it took roughly 3-4 years from when I started, to getting my license exam passed for Morse. But I had to learn electronics and radio theory along with Morse, pretty much on my own, to reach my goal.
    56 Years later I still am on CW and still enjoy it.
    TODAY, with computer programs and hand held devices and radio club classes It would take a determined adult person a lot less time.
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2017
  2. K8JD

    K8JD Ham Member QRZ Page

    WB5YUZ and KA0HCP like this.
  3. WB2WIK

    WB2WIK Platinum Subscriber Platinum Subscriber QRZ Page

    I'm sure you're right, and in years and years of working with "students" who actually wanted to learn the code, I found "listening" is a slow and painful way to do it.

    Listening and sending (both, I think they're equally important) and "chit chatting" using tone oscillators and hand keys is interactive, more interesting, and accelerates the process - a lot.
    US7IGN likes this.
  4. N2EY

    N2EY Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    In case you haven't seen this:

    12 Tips on Learning Morse Code

    Way back in the 1960s it took me about two months to go from zero to about 7 wpm. I did it by listening to other hams on the air - no tapes, records or computer. There are better ways now and you can probably get to 5 wpm or so in a month to 6 weeks, if you practice every day.

    In a few months after getting my Novice I was ready for 13 wpm, and in about a year, 20 wpm. And that was just the beginning.

    Dr. George Sheehan frequently said that "Each of us is an experiment of one". He meant that while there are general rules to learning new things, each of us has to experiment to find out what works best for him or her. For most things, there is no single "best" way for everyone. This is particularly true when it comes to learning skills.

    Skills are learned differently from "book knowledge". People only develop skills by doing - by active participation, not by passive reception. No teacher can teach a skill; all a teacher can do is guide the student's efforts.

    That said, here are 12 tips to learning Morse Code:

    1) It used to be that there were two main reasons for radio amateurs to learn Morse Code. The first was to actually use it on the air, while the second was to pass the license tests. The second reason has disappeared in the USA and several other countries.

    So it's important to understand what your goal really is: to become an Amateur Radio Operator who is skilled in Morse Code. That means learning a set of skills, not just the one or two skills needed to pass a one-time test.

    That skillset cannot be learned by reading a book, watching a video, using other modes to talk about them on the air, or participating in online forums. While those things help, they are not the core.

    The needed skillset can only be learned by doing, and it takes time, practice, and an active involvement on your part. This is what makes learning skills so different from "book learning" - and why some folks find it so hard to learn skills. You have to be actively involved - it doesn't happen passively.

    2) Set up a place to study Morse Code. This doesn't mean it's the only place you study code, just that it's optimized for learning it. A good solid desk or table with no distractions, lots of room to write, good lighting, and a good chair. Source(s) of code (computer, HF receiver, tapes, CDs, etc.), key and oscillator. Headphones are a good idea. I recommend starting out with a straight key, you may decide to go straight to paddles and a keyer. Regardless of what key you decide to use, it needs a good solid base and needs to be adjusted properly.

    3) Avoid gimmicks such as CodeQuick and printed charts with dots and dashes on them. Often such systems were designed to help a person learn just enough code to pass the 5 wpm test, but resulted in bad habits that had to be unlearned for practical operating. Morse Code as used on radio is sounds, not printing on a chart or little phrases. They may work for some people, but, in general, I advise against them.

    Learning to receive consists of nothing more than learning to associate a certain sound pattern with a certain letter or number. There are only about 41 of them to learn. If you could learn to recognize 41 words in a foreign language, you can almost certainly learn Morse Code.

    4) Set aside at least a half-hour EVERY DAY for code practice. Can be a couple of ten- or fifteen minute sessions, but they should add up to at least a half hour every day. That means every single day, not just weekends, holidays, etc. If you can do more than a half-hour some days, great! Do it! But more on one day does not give you an excuse to miss the next day.

    Some folks learn better if they do several short sessions, some learn better if they do it all at once. You have to find out what works best for you.

    Yes, you may miss a day here and there, because life happens. The trick is to keep such missed days to the absolute minimum.

    5) If you can enlist a buddy to learn the code with, or find a class, do it! But do NOT use the class or the buddy as an excuse to miss practice or slow down your learning. The buddy and/or class are a supplement to your study, not the center of it.

    6) Download and read "The Art And Skill of Radiotelegraphy". It's free and available from several websites. “Zen and the Art of Radiotelegraphy” is also good. Search out other code-oriented websites, articles, etc. and read what they have to say. But always remember they're not a substitute for practice.

    7) Practice both sending and receiving each and every day. Most of your practice time should be spent receiving, but the two help each other. Practice receiving by writing it down and by copying "in your head". I find a pencil and block printing works best for me; you may be better with a ballpoint, felt tip, etc. Or even a keyboard.

    8) A combination of the Koch method and Farnsworth spacing is probably optimum for most people. Read up on them, understand and use them – but remember they are tools, not magic. They can make learning the code easier but they will not make it automatic.

    9) Discontinue ANYTHING that impairs your ability to concentrate, focus, and learn new stuff. Only doctor-prescribed medications are exempt from this rule; beer is not exempt. Eat right, get enough sleep and enough physical exercise.

    10) Put away your microphones, stay off the voice radios - all of them. Besides the automated Morse Code generators, listen to hams actually using code on the air. Copy down what they send. Have Morse Code playing in the background while you do other things (but don’t count that as practice time). Learn how hams actually use code. When you get to the point where you can send and receive code, even slowly, get on the air and start making QSOs. Get involved in CW contesting, rag chewing, DX chasing, etc. Remember that you are learning Morse Code to be a Radio Operator, not just to pass a test.

    11) If your HF rig doesn't have a sharp filter (400-500 Hz), get one and install it. Read the manual about how to use the rig on CW; usually the default settings are optimized for SSB. Best operation usually requires turning off the AGC, turning the RF gain down and the AF gain up. The S-meter and AGC won't work under those conditions but that's no big loss; they’re not all that useful on CW anyway.

    12) Keep at it. There may be times when it seems as if you are making no progress, and times when you make rapid progress. What matters is that you keep practicing every day. Nobody was born knowing the skills you're trying to learn.


    A bit of work? Sure it is, but well worth it, because all those steps make learning the code easier. And the work is trivial compared to what you can do with the skills once they're learned.

    But a person has to be willing to do what's required. And they have to actually do those things.

    Good luck!

    73 de Jim, N2EY
    WA7ANT likes this.
  5. M0LEP

    M0LEP Ham Member QRZ Page

    Take the face-to-face classes out of that equation and what would you expect? That's today's reality, for most. Face-to-face Morse classes are very few and far between.

    Yep. Again, that is the sort of thing you can do in a class or with a buddy, but not with just computer programs, tapes and CDs.

    A significant part of that guiding will be in pointing out when the student's on the wrong track. Learning a skill by yourself is possible, but a good teacher will most likely make it more straight forward, and probably significantly less frustrating.

    Active involvement again. That sort of thing is so much easier if it involves other like-minded people, especially if at least one of them is already skilled and able to teach.
  6. US7IGN

    US7IGN Ham Member QRZ Page

    Jim, your tips are very correct and useful.
    But I did not dare to start with a direct key.
    I immediately began to use iambik key and everything turned out.
    Also I immediately started using the keyboard for recording and then it turned out that I can not write to paper. I had to retrain.
    I confirm that only personal strong interest will allow you to learn the CW.
  7. N2EY

    N2EY Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    I've been a ham 50 years, and face-to-face Morse classes were very few and far between (at least for civilians) back when I started. And ever since. At least, in the places I lived.

    And here's the big deal: Unless the class is practically every day, you'll need to spend more time practicing on your own than you spend in class. A LOT more time.

    Sure. But the fact remains that you have to be actively involved to learn a skill. You can't learn to ride a bike, play piano, or any of a bunch of other skills by passive means; you have to actually DO it.

    Of course. But for most hams today such classes, or a "code buddy", are just not realistic options. So it's important to emphasize what methods they can actually use. And that they can actually learn code on their own.

    All IMHO.

    Here's a first person story:

    Some years back, I was in a situation where I needed to be able to recite some lines exactly as written. Not much - but they had to be memorized exactly, and repeated without hesitation or even thinking. It was really difficult for me, but I did it.

    Then I decided to memorize something else - just to develop the skill. So I did - and then a third thing, and a fourth, and so on. Each new piece was a bit easier for me to memorize, even though it was more complex and longer.

    What I'd done is to develop the skill of memorizing lines. Not as good as others, but better than before.

    And I keep getting better at it.

    73 de Jim, N2EY
  8. KB1CKT

    KB1CKT Ham Member QRZ Page

    I've been trying to learn CW for almost two decades now. Some day I plan to get there! Sometimes I can copy 20wpm, on a good day spots of 25, but I can't write 25wpm fast enough, and I'm such a visual person that I have to read what I wrote down for it to make sense (no, it doesn't make sense to me either--but there's only a few words that I can hear in CW and "know" what I've heard).

    I like copying W1AW but sometimes, while I like the machine-perfect code best, I feel like it actually hurts. Short of people who use keyboards--no one sends like that! Which isn't always bad. Yeah I dislike bugs and straight keys--if I can tell it's in use, it "bugs" me--but real code has these pauses which often allows higher character speeds. [Then there's the speed up at times, like signing it back over to someone else, but no one is copying then, and if they were, they probably already know what is being sent.] Also most code practice on the computer seems to lack QSB and QRM/N. Another reason to transition to copy from the air when one can. Plus I hear making contacts can be fun.
  9. N2EY

    N2EY Premium Subscriber QRZ Page


    1) Don't limit yourself by thoughts such as "I'm such a visual person". If someone talks to you, you don't have to see the words written down, right?

    2) If you can copy and send 15 know CW.

    3) One way to improve your skills is......contesting. Seriously. Particularly S&P contesting in domestic contests like ARRL November SS.

    73 es GL de Jim, N2EY
  10. KB1CKT

    KB1CKT Ham Member QRZ Page

    Back in college, I cued in how I learned best: didn't matter if the prof was writing down verbatim what was in the book: I needed to write it down myself. With sketches as necessary.

    [Except statistics. That was simple algebra word problems. Of course, a year later I remembered zip about that course, so my effort (or lack) showed very quickly.]

    These days, living in front of a computer... you can ask my wife just how good I am at remembering what she told me. [Heck sometimes I forget what she emailed me! might be a different issue.]

    I dunno, everything I've read says that I should be able to go on up to 30wpm head copy. I simply haven't had the ability to copy every day at speeds just above my threshold--something gets boring, fast. But it's a good reminder that I need to go back and practice some more.

    I leave my keyer at 15 as I can work the paddle there, but any faster and I can't move my fingers fast enough. I keep the keyboard handy. These days while sending I keep my keyer set to display what I've sent. Something about reading, just haven't broken the habit. I've started listening to code in the car, off my '817, but I find it hard to follow along. Concentration drifts in and out, and sometimes I just can't remember all the characters received (if it's a long word).

    I do enjoy the NAQCC sprints, doing S&P there. Quick and done. I usually listen first, get their call & #, then will call when the time is opportune. A bit less stress when I "know" what I need to copy, already. haven't worked any other contests lately.

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