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Ham Radio


Learning Morse Code

0 to 13 wpm in 3 Weeks
0 to 20 wpm in 16 Weeks

By: H. Leon Raper - W7TPQ
(c)1996 All Rights Reserved

After 43 years of inactivity in ham radio, I got interested again when I met a ham named Jerry Conover (AB7II) in a store in Flagstaff Arizona. He was talking to another fellow about an upcoming ham radio test that was going to be given in Flagstaff. That got my juices flowing and I decided to try to get my license back. I originally got my Technician Class license in 1953 when I was a junior in high school, but I never was active, never used cw on the air, and let my license lapse. After 43 years, I had to start all over from scratch.

I started practicing the code on April 8, 1996. On April 27, 1996, just shy of three weeks from the time I started, I passed the 5 wpm code test. I didn't think I had a ghost of a chance of passing the 13 wpm test but decided to take the test the same day - What the heck, all I could do is fail. Well, I did pass the 13 wpm code test that same day and got my General Class license. On July 20, 1996, about 16 weeks from the time I started, I passed the 20 wpm code test and got my Extra Class license. Needless to say, there was also a lot of midnight oil burned during that time studying for the written part of the exams.

Learning the code seems to be a great obstacle for many people so I thought some of the techniques I used may also help someone else attain their goals in Amateur Radio. Since I completed this project very recently, I remember most of the steps I used to accomplish my goal. To start with, I knew I needed the right code training tapes and preferably a computer code training program. At first I thought the code training tapes I was using were great, but after about 10 days of hard work, I found out that there were several letters of the alphabet, punctuation and pro signs that I had not learned - preventing me from going much further. This was because those tapes did not give a well rounded practice with all required elements of the language. Then I got the ARRL code training tapes and was off and running - they were excellent training tapes. I also got a computer code training program which allowed me to repeatedly practice the characters with which I was having the most trouble. About three weeks from the time I started, I passed the 5 wpm & 13 wpm code tests.

Then I decided I hadn't tortured myself enough, so I decided to try for the 20 wpm goal. I got some more code training tapes produced by Jerry Ziliak (KB6MT) at Amateur Radio School in Fullerton, CA. Jerry's tapes were also excellent - with isolated training for numbers and hard to learn characters. Jerry has an excellent understanding of the learning process and guides you through the maze in a very organized manner. I studied using Jerry's tapes, the ARRL tapes and the code practice on W1AW. Sixteen weeks after I started, I passed the 20 wpm code test.

I used some learning techniques that I learned at Northern Arizona University where I was a student recently. I was one of those old fogies going back to school and was having a great deal of trouble absorbing the massive amounts of material. So I took advantage of the Learning Assistance Center at the University. I went through all their learning assistance videos and worked one-on-one with a counselor at the center. I learned that you should only study for about 45 minutes to one hour, then take a break. During the break, while you are doing something else, your brain is digesting the information that you were studying - and you don't know it is doing it. There were also many other learning techniques that I will not go into here because they are not really relevant to what we are trying to accomplish.

Still not satisfied with my learning ability, I tried to further isolate my problem. Could it have been that I was just suffering from the "can't teach an old dog new tricks" syndrome? So I got myself tested at the learning disability center at the university. This is where I found out I had a legitimate learning disability. After that, I got other professional psychological testing which further proved a learning disability. Well, since I don't like problems, I decided to try to find a way to fix it. Isn't that what you do when your car it is broken - you get it fixed? I went through a lot of psychological therapy from which I obtained probably the most important tool I could have asked for. That is, learning how to relax. The psychologist told me to practice once per hour closing my eyes and taking a few very deep breaths and to exhale completely. Upon exhaling through my nose I tried to visualize the air washing out my brain. I also visualized a coolness flowing down from my shoulders through my arms and hands, and through my entire body to my toes - relaxing my entire body. I also got some guided meditation tapes to practice relaxation to background music. They were great. All these techniques worked wonders on my ability to relax and concentrate. Relaxation was a major technique I used before and during the code tests. I wasn't able to fix the learning disability problem, but I sure found some ways to help work around it.

There is another technique I used to attain total concentration when I was working on increasing my code speed. Every time I increased the speed of the code, I thought I would never be able to hang on at those speeds. What I did was to close my eyes so I could get total concentration. Then I would write as many characters as I could - ignoring those I didn't automatically recognize. Sometimes I scribbled off the paper and onto my desktop. That's ok, the goal was not to get my pencil to stay at the proper place on the paper, the goal was to get my brain to recognize the code characters at higher rates of speed and have those characters come out through my hand. It worked great and I highly recommend it. I used this technique when I took my code tests. The only thing I did differently was to open my eyes often to make sure I was still writing on the test paper.

When I started learning the code, everything I heard went onto the paper. I didn't even know what the characters were until I saw them start to appear on the paper. This may sound strange, but it just happened automatically when I was learning. Now that I think about it, what happened was that I developed a mental single conversion process whereby whatever went into my ear came out my hand onto the paper with no intermediate conversions. That is opposed to a double conversion process whereby you first identify the character mentally, then write the character on paper. I copy letter for letter. When I start copying a character, I don't have a clue as to what character preceded it - I have already dumped the previous character from my mind and am working on the new one. I am totally tuned in on the character currently being copied. If it doesn't instantly start to come out of my hand onto the paper, I reject it and go on to the next character. The down side of this is that I can write the code quite well, but I can not just listen to code yet at any significant speed and read it without writing it down. I am in the process of training myself to accomplish that task currently.

One very important technique I learned was from a Volunteer Examiner, Ron Boan (AK6Y), after I just failed the 20 wpm for the third time. After the test, I was telling him that I could copy ok as long as my brain was in synch with the code, but it would slip synch and the characters all seemed to run together. He told me what he did prior to passing his test and that was to listen to the fastest code tapes he could get and listen to fast code on the radio. He said to just try to separate the characters in your mind and don't worry about actually copying the code. So, that's what I did - not trying to copy the code, but just mentally separating the high speed characters. I took my walkman everywhere with me and just let the tapes play. The ARRL tapes go up to 22 wpm and Jerry Ziliak's tapes go up to 23 wpm. I also listened to fast code on W1AW. Within one week of this type practice, I passed the 20 wpm test.

Trying to find practice time is a problem for many people. I found out that I could practice code sometimes while driving my car if there was not much traffic. Not only could I listen to very fast code tapes trying to separate the characters, I could scratch out the letters on my leg with my finger - much as I would have if I was writing on paper. I could do this without interfering with my driving. When practicing at home, I forced myself to copy at least 3 pages of hand written code before I would quit. I did take short breaks sometimes to let my hand relax. I also tried to practice at least once every day, but no less than every other day. Sometimes I practiced several times per day.

When copying the code I would find my hand start to hurt. I think it was because my hand was very tense and I pressing too hard on the pencil. I copied code using regular pencils. To break my self of the habit of tensing my hand so much, I started using a mechanical pencil. If I put much pressure on it the lead would break. To keep from breaking the lead, I had to learn to reduce the tension in my hand - which I did. The overall result was that I forced myself to learn how to relax my hand - which allowed me to write much faster. The answer to your next question is yes you can write code characters at 20 wpm - it is not impossible.

One must also conquer the "I can't do it syndrome." "I can't do it" must be removed from your vocabulary and your way of thinking - "you can do it." A technique I use to kick myself in the "beep" is to repeat the words "I can do it" many times to myself as fast as I can say them. It is sort of like repeating a mantra in meditation that helps focus your mind. You can do it - you just don't know how long it will take - and that depends on how bad you want to accomplish your goal and on how much work you are willing to put into it.

Now I will tell you exactly what I did on test day to pass the 20 wpm test? While driving to the test site, I listened to the fastest code tapes I had, but I didn't try to copy the code - I only tried to separate the characters. Before the test I tried to relax - practicing the deep breathing exercises. I took several well sharpened pencils to the test. During the test I tried deep breathing several times. I closed my eyes and only opened them occasionally to make sure I was still writing on the paper. I tried to copy as many characters as I could, ignoring the ones that I could not instantly recognize. I was amazed as to how much I had actually copied by the end of the test. The result was I got 8 out of 10 test answers correct and passed the test.

The following are my suggestions for learning Morse code: (1) Get good learning tapes that provide you equally rounded practice with all the required characters and listen to W1AW. (2) If you have a computer, get a code practice program. If you do not have a computer then you can either replay many times the sections of your practice tapes with which you are having trouble, or you can repeatedly record those sections several times onto another tape and use that to practice. (3) Write all your copy on paper, don't try to print using upper case letters - that is way too slow. (4) Listen as often as possible to code that is so blazing fast that you can only separate, but not copy, the characters. (5) Constantly push yourself to speeds at which you can just barely copy - skip over any characters that don't immediately come to mind. You will begin to recognize certain characters with which you are having trouble. When you do, use your computer program to replay those characters continuously until you get proficient copying them. (6) You shouldn't have trouble memorizing the practice material if you use use practice tapes from different sources changing them frequently and also listen to W1AW. (7) Take the test as many times as it takes to accomplish your goal. (8) If you pass the 5 wpm test, then also take the 13 wpm test the same day. If you pass the 13 wpm test, then also take the 20 wpm test the same day. No one ever died from failing a ham radio code test. Taking and failing tests will help you learn to survive under pressure. I said previously that I failed my test 3 times before I passed the 20 wpm. That was actually 6 times because I failed each test twice at 3 different testing sessions. That was a lot of valuable experience.

I wish you all the very best in your code studies and I know you can do it. Once you believe you can do it, you will be able to do it. I can be reached at 1(480)945-9100 or by E-mail

[Raper's Ham Radio Corner]

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