This was first written, in 1988, when one had
to learn something to get a ham license.
Over the years I have heard people discussing how difficult it is
to learn the code. I will never forget the difficulty I had in
learning the code, but I finally did and now I love it. I began
thinking about my learning process in an effort to try to understand
this problem. Remembering the false starts and blind alleys I
followed, brings back the frustration that many voice today. The old
excuses of laziness, lack of motivation, "I just can't hear those dits",
apply as much as ever, but doesn't explain most of the problems. So
why is it so difficult? Here are my conclusions. CW is a language,
just like English or Spanish. We receive (hear) it the same way as
other languages, but we transmit (speak) it by a different method. If
any doubt exists about CW being a language, check with Webster. Think
about sign language. It is received with the eyes and sent with the
hands. Nobody argues that signing isn't a language. Fluent means the
ability to speak effortlessly in a smooth and rapid manner. Let's
review how languages are learned.
The first thing that a child utters is usually "ma ma" or "da da,"
because it is something that is very important to the child. This
first word is spoken at about the normal rate of fluency. Then words
are added and always at the rate of fluency. As the child's
experiences expand, the vocabulary follows. Historically we have
learned that code is some kind of converted English. We start with the
full vocabulary, and all efforts are put into increasing the speed. This is about as backwards as possible. Imagine learning Spanish by
somehow getting the full vocabulary and speaking the words slowly,
then a bit faster and then faster yet. The words would sound
completely different at each speed and must be learned all over again. Actually CW is an international language and little of it can be taken
literally in English. Maybe we can learn something by talking to those
"high speed" CW operators (one capable of at least 30 to 40 wpm and
understanding by hearing, with no pencil). The question is "At what
speed did you feel that you were fluent with CW?" The answers came in
around 30-35 WPM. These operators were eventually able to add another
5 to 25 wpm to their speed. Some of their comments were quite
revealing. "I hear words and phrases, not letters." "When the
speed drops down to about 18 WPM I must grab a pencil, as I forget
what has been sent." "I only use a pencil for notes, just as I do with
voice." Fast CW is just fluency in Morse code.
You might ask "Why learn 35 wpm when I only need 20 wpm for the
fastest test?" That is a good question and the answer is easy. The
Extra requirement of 20 wpm is so slow and under the rate of fluency
that it is actually hard to copy. It's natural to think that the top
license would show proficiency but it doesn't. After a few years many
lose the code. Code is like riding a bicycle, once you really
learn it, it comes back quickly.
Let's compare English to CW. English has 44 phonemes or phonics. These are sounds, that in various combinations make up our words. CW
has only 2 sounds that make up all words. English has about 50,000
words in common speech and about 10 times that totally. Ham radio CW
has about 100 words in common use, but of course you may use the whole
English language in rag chewing. Many English words have more than 4
letters, even 10 or more. Of the "100" CW words, the largest is only 4
letters. There is no punctuation in any "spoken" language, as that is
only for written words. English rules for spelling and grammar do not
apply to CW. As with any spoken language there is no upper or
What are the requirements for learning this simple language?
Anybody who can communicate in any language can learn CW. What about
the person who is tone deaf? Tone deaf hams lose their ability to
understand speech long before CW. This is because it's possible to
adjust the CW pitch to a tone that is still within range. Some hams
are only on CW because they can't hear speech easily. People who seem
to have the easiest time with CW are those with musical ability. In
the same way that some people speak slowly and some quickly, the same
follows for CW. Virtually everybody can learn 20 wpm, except maybe
those with severe learning handicaps. I feel that the former FCC
medical exception for code was in most cases in error or fraudulent.
Almost any medical condition that would prohibit one from learning the
code would also prohibit one from using a ham license.
In CW classes, I have sent CQ at 35 wpm to operators claiming they
were capable of only 8 or 10 wpm and asked if anybody could identify
it. Typically the answer is "That's CQ, I can copy that at any speed. "Congratulations, you have just proven that you can copy 35 WPM. Now
you just need a larger vocabulary!" It might at first sound silly, but
it's true. This clue tells us that we need to hear the code the same
way that we would eventually expect to use it. The same as any
language. Just like an infant learns words that are important to
it's life, we should only try to learn words that we will actually
use. So let's first learn ham radio words. A conversation, on the air,
is called a QSO. A QSO has important characteristics to understand. DX, contest QSOs, and traffic messages are exceptions that are highly
specialized. Let's deal with the standard QSO.
The first transmission of a QSO is standardized for the whole
world. It conveys only 3 pieces of information, partly as a test of
conditions. If one or more of these are lost then little time has been
wasted. There is nothing worse than someone sending for 10 minutes and
getting nothing. The first 2 of these 3 are designed to convey
information that can allow changes to be made to improve the quality
of the contact. Over 50% of the words in the first transmission are
just as recognizable as CQ. Each of these could be considered as a
freebie. Stuff that is so recognizable that you just know what is
coming along next. What really happens is that this easy stuff
provides a kind of breathing space and serves to alert you as to what
The first thing sent is the "RST" or signal report. If the received
report is poor then something must be done to improve the signal. Two
things can possibly be done, increase the power or change the antenna. This may be the time to warm up the linear amplifier. The second thing
sent is the QTH, or location. This may tell you the direction to turn
the antenna. If you increase power or turn the antenna, or both, then
you can be sure that the other station will hear you better. The
third is the name and it is for politeness.
First, the signal report, RST is a number of only three digits. The
"R" is for readability and is usually a 5, sometimes a 4 and rarely a
3. The "S" is for strength and can be anything between 1 and 9. Usually it's 5 or higher. The "T" is for tone and is always a 9, due
to today's modern equipment and clean commercial power. We are going
to hear the letters RST, which, like CQ, we can copy at any speed. Then we get a 4 or 5 and now it's time to wake up because the only
important thing is about to come along. It's the "S" and in this
example a 7, so write it down, now the useless "T" a 9, don't write
it. Then here comes the whole thing again. A typical report would look
like this "RST 579 RST 579" and you are only looking for the 7. A
total of 12 "things" have been sent and you only need one, maybe two
of them. You even had a good idea what it might be. Now isn't that
Second, the QTH, or location, is tougher as it is something that
you will actually need to copy. All is not lost because nobody has
gone to jail for not getting it the first time. To ask for a repeat,
just say "QTH ?" On the FCC test you must copy it.
More about this later.
Third, is the name, and this is simple. Most CW operators have
shortened any long name to 4 letters or less. To ask for a
repeat just say "name ?" If you never get the name then just fall back
to the old standby "OM," meaning "old man." This must be the only
hobby where you compliment someone by calling them old.
The second transmission isn't as formal, but may include a
description of the station, the weather, your age and profession. Now
you are not hearing many of the 100 words, but real information
proceeded by one of the 100, such as "wx cool es cldy." This
translates to "My weather is cool and cloudy." the term "wx" alerts
you to words about weather. Additional transmissions would branch off
into mutual interests and follow no pattern. Now you must actually
copy CW or say "73" and move on to another QSO. Many DX stations do
this, as they have limited English and can only copy the basic QSO.
What are these 100 words in Morse Co?
The first 26 are our alphabet. Sometimes one letter has a meaning
that is one or more words. The letter "R" means "I have received all
that you have sent." The letter "C" means "yes." The letter "K" means
"It is your turn to transmit". The next 10 are the digits from 0 to 9. Another 10 are the Q signals. About 10 "Q" signals are all that we
really use so forget that long list. Most of the rest of the 100 words
are only 2 or 3 letters long ie. "hw?" this means "How well did
you copy?" The longest word is "name" and it has no secret meaning.
Many students seem to be thrown by the punctuation. The FCC test
requires that you be able to answer questions about the message sent. Failure to get punctuation can't possibly cause you miss a question on
the test. For example, "My QTH is Galt, CA." and you have missed a
period or comma. How can you not get the answer to the question? The
testing people might use that phrase, but on the air it would be "QTH
Galt CA Galt CA." Even with that highly abbreviated form, you should
be able to answer the question. Now you spot the question mark and
the slant bar. They are wonderful ways to say a lot by sending a
little. The "?" means "here is a question." "Name ?" means "Please
tell me your name." The slant bar, or fraction bar, is used in a call
sign as in this example. "JT1/W6REC" means "I am a portable station in
Mongolia (JT) and my home call is W6REC." Don't you think learning the
little slant bar is a good trade off? These two are used, not as
punctuation, but instead, as a group of several words. The FCC test
won't be about an easy "first transmission" because it's impossible to
ask 10 questions from the 3 bits of information in the standard QSO. This test will include information that would typically come from 2 or
3 transmissions, so that 10 questions can be asked. The good
news is that you will have learned at the speed of fluency and the
information that comes at you at 13-20 WPM sounds really slow and is
A REVIEW OF TRADITIONAL METHODS
In order to analyze existing learning methods we should consider
our goals. We need conversational language. We are doing the same
thing as sitting around the living room and chatting. Nobody is taking
notes or transcribing, as in a business conference or legal
proceeding. If the casual conversation turns technical or to some
specialty then our rate of speaking and understanding will slow down.
The same thing happens in any language, as well as in CW.
1. The Farnsworth method.
This method makes use of the fact that the brain can decipher the
dits and dahs at a high speed. The letters are sent at a fast speed
and lots of space is left between each one so that the brain has
increased recognition time. Some of the code tapes use 22 wpm for the
letter speed and only shorten up the space to increase the speed.
The Farnsworth method was first described in the late 50s and has
become a standard way to learn CW.
The military method is sometimes touted as "the way." The purpose
of this form of communication was to provide written copy to another
person. The person "copying" the code would hear a symbol and
immediately type it. The sound triggered a motor response, but no
understanding. The information received was 5 letter code groups,
which included digits, and was unreadable until someone decoded it.
Not very suitable for our use.
3. Morse Code Tapes.
Thousands of people have studied code tapes and have learned CW
this way. There are several problems with this method. Many students
report that they eventually memorize the tape and aren't actually
learning code. Some were not even aware that this was happening. In
order to reduce this memorizing, some tricks have been developed, such
as spelling the words backwards. To copy this it's necessary to write
it all down. Imagine hearing a language backwards in order to learn it
forwards. None of the tapes that I have heard are concentrating on the
basic vocabulary, or what I call the "100 words." The quality of some
tapes are very poor. To compare this to learning Spanish, it would be
similar to hearing poorly spoken Spanish, about an unknown subject, in
a crowded and noisy room. Does that sound easy? Tapes do have lots of
potential. The tapes just need the right words recorded.
Use the tendency to memorize as an advantage and just hear the basic
100, randomly, at the speed of fluency.
4. Morse Code computer programs.
I have reviewed a few of the programs but haven't yet found one
that is designed to do this job. The first problem is that all of them
require one to type. When one learns Spanish, does one type something
to indicate understanding? We have no need to type messages, only
understand the meanings of sounds. Why respond to a meaningful sound
with a motor movement? This will only slow one down. Typing
ability shouldn't be a prerequisite for learning CW.
What should a computer program do? What we need is Farnsworth
words. The whole word sent quickly, at the speed of fluency, and then
a big space. At least two of the popular programs can be fooled into
doing this. Use the part of the program that will send a text of your
choice. Make a text file of "words" with lots of spaces added
5. On the air practice.
This method is divided into two parts. Listening to code practice
stations and entering into actual contacts. The ARRL sends code
practice on several bands and at different speeds. The code is perfect
and is text from QST magazine, so at least it is about amateur radio
subjects. The first disadvantage is that you must contend with QRM,
(interference) QRN, (static) and QSB (fading). Learn the code, then
you can learn to contend with the real world and its distractions. The
second disadvantage is that you must have the equipment to receive the
signals and know how to use it. CW signals that are poorly
tuned, are hard to copy.
The third disadvantage is that one would never send these words on
the air. One private party sends code practice on 40 meters. This code
is text from the Bible. To learn Spanish, would you listen to tapes of
a Spanish translation of the Bible? Maybe, if you plan to be a
missionary, in a Spanish speaking country and plan to give sermons in
code. Is it any wonder that code is a challenge to learn this way?
Having actual contacts on the air is a commonly advised method, and it
will work, but has some inherent problems. All three of the
disadvantages mentioned above for "on the air" code practice apply
here too. In addition, the code heard on the air is far from perfect. Perfect code is much easier to copy, and this is especially important
for the new student. Another disadvantage is that the student must
also learn the necessary motor skills of sending CW. One aspect of "on
the air" learning is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The
advantage is that when a someone is trying to communicate with you,
you have a vested interest and probably greater concentration. After
all, if we miss what the computer or tape has sent we can just rewind
it. You might be so interested to hear what somebody is saying to you
that you really try. Or you might just freeze up and get nothing. Your
personality determines how you respond to the challenge. One big
advantage to "on the air" practice is that you learn the equipment,
propagation, make friends and get practice doing what you want to do
anyway, Do you really want to communicate using code, or just pass the
The disadvantage is that you may learn poor procedures, use a lot
of time and won't hear fast relevant code. The most efficient method
is to hear fast, correct code from the start. I feel that current
novice habits are so far from the world standard that bad habits are
guaranteed to be learned. Why learn poor habits and then hope to
relearn good ones? More about this later.
Here is the sequence to learning CW the most efficient way. Second,
learn to send the code with a paddle and electronic keyer combination. Third, learn to copy off the air.
Began sending as soon as possible.
Hear are the three ways to hear this 100 words.
1. Learn to copy the 100 words by hearing them in perfect code. A
computer can send perfect code from text files made up from these 100
words. None of the programs I have seen are intended to do this. At
least one of the popular shareware programs can be made to do this. The trick is to enter enough spaces between the words to give the time
you need. As you improve, edit the file and reduce the spaces between
words. Make an audio tape of these files for use away from the
computer. Find a friend who is willing to send the words to you.
I recommend that a certain sequence be used for the alphabet. This
may not work for all, but give it a try.
TMO0, that's the letter O and the number zero
Notice that the same letter comes up in more than one sequence. It
can fit into more than one logical order. Practice the EISH5 until
it's easy, then go on to the next sequence. Many letters don't
fit any order, just tough it out.
2. Learn to send. Acquire a paddle and electronic keyer combination
to practice sending. Do not start with a straight key. Send the 100
words in any order, quickly. One of the daily drills I recommend is to
send the alphabet as quickly as possibly. Keep track of the number of
seconds required. Ignore the mistakes, they will disappear as you get
better. One of the things we hear from beginners is that they can send
faster than they can receive. High speed operators report that they
can copy faster than they can send. I have heard two theories to
explain this. As you send CW, your brain has knowledge of what's
coming along. This advance warning gives time for the brain to
remember the dits and dahs. In receiving there is no warning and the
brain must put it into context. The other theory is that different
parts of the brain are involved in sending and receiving. If that is
true then it follows that the sending part can then teach the
receiving part, and it works, to some extent. The high speed operator
is limited, in sending, by the speed of the motor functions. In my
case, the brain runs out of gas in the 50 wpm range for receive and my
hand gets pretty sloppy at 35 wpm. I am ambidextrous, or mixed handed
in many activities. I write left handed and learned to send right
handed. I am lucky, as I can do both, to some extent, simultaneously. Why don't you learn to send with your other hand?
3. Learn to receive and send by making contacts on the air. Most of
the code is far from perfect, but this is real life. One helpful thing
that you can do for your first QSOs is to write the information that
you expect to send.
Typical first transmission.
________ De W6REC
RST 599 599
QTH Galt CA Galt CA
Name Duane Duane
Typical second transmission
__________ De W6REC
Ant 3 el Yagi up 80 feet
Age 50 50 yrs
Wx sunny es warm
The blank spaces represent the other ham's call sign. You can fill
it in and then you have the first transmission ready for sending from
your paper. After the first few QSOs the tension will reduce and you
won't need the paper. Notice that I didn't use the K at the end of the
transmission to mean "It is your turn to transmit." I recommend that
you don't use this because it's going out of style. It is still
used by some operators but actually it's rather useless.
When you send information, the call signs and then stop sending,
most people will figure out that it's their turn, so why tell them?
Suppose you get so nervous that you copy nothing and have no reason
to think you can save it? In the worst case you can just leave and do
nothing, nobody is watching. The other station can assume that you had
a phone call or conditions changed. Or just wait until the person
stops sending and send your "panic" message. Make this message up
ahead of time and keep it ready. It could say something like
Tu QSO 73
De W6REC SK.
Or it could say the truth, "I can not copy I am going to kill
BASIC 100 WORDS
This list can be easily debated as to whether it is too long or too
short. The list I have used for years has grown and shrunk and
currently is about 97 "words".
1. The 26 letters of our alphabet 26
2. The digits 0-9 10
QRL-This frequency is busy
QRM-I have interference
QRN-I have static
QRS-Please send more slowly
QRT-I must go now
QRZ-Who is calling me?
QSO-A radio contact
QTH-My location is
QRX-Please stand by 11
A-See "Funny numbers" below
AGE-You may add 10 years for respect
BEAM- Type of antenna
BK-Break in (its your turn)
C-Yes, usually used as an answer for the question QRL
CL-I am closing my station
CL?-What is your call sign?
CPY-Do you copy?
CQ-General call of someone looking for a QSO
CUL-See you later
DSW-Goodbye, in Russian
DX-Long distance, usually out of this country
FB-Fine business, everything is OK
HI-Joke, I am kidding
HW-How, short for "How do you copy?"
K-I am finished, it is your turn to transmit
LOOP-Type of antenna
N-See "Funny numbers" below
NAME-My radio name is
OM-Old man, a compliment to a good operator
OP-Operator, used instead of name
R-One or more Rs means that I have copied all. Similar to QSL
RPT- Repeat (This one is totally useless)
RST-Signal report. R is readability, S is strength and T is tone
RIG-My equipment is
SAN-A compliment is Japanese, when added to a name as a suffix. Example Jimsan
T-See "Funny numbers" below
TEST-Contest, Ex. CQ TEST. Sometimes "I am testing."
TU,TKS,TNX-Thanks, TU is the most popular today.
YAGI-Type of beam antenna
YRS-Years, as in age
73-Best regards, polite way to say goodbye.
88-Love and kisses, usually used between persons of opposite
gender, regardless of age or relationship.
?-To indicate that a question has been asked QTH? means "Where do
/- Shows portable operation
(8 DITS)-Mistake, Start the word over.. Advanced operators
abbreviate this with 2 dits, widely spaced, "E E." The most advanced
operators tend to ignore their mistakes, as they know that the copier
will fix it mentally. We do this automatically in casual speech.
BT-Pause, similar to the verbal "Ahhh" that just fills in.
AS-Standby for a few seconds
AR-End of transmission, no longer in general use
The line over the letters is used to indicate that the letters are
run together with no spacing.
These "numbers" are used in some DX and contest QSOs and are
included here because you may come across them and wonder. It's
another example of a short cut.
N-The abbreviation for the number 9. This is derived from the last
two parts of the 9, not from the first letter of the word "nine."
Example, "RST 5NN" FOR 599
T-The abbreviation for zero, in the days before the electronic
keyer it was a long dah and can still be heard occasionally today by
operators using a "bug".
A-The abbreviation for the number one, in this case its the first 2
parts of the digit.
This is my explanation of learning CW as a language. I would
appreciate feedback, suggestions or complaints to
Put W6REC or NC6M into google to see some contest records and