Beyond the Basics with CW Innovations

Many thanks to Brain (K3ES) who shares the following guest post:

CW POTA activations can be enjoyable, and theraputic.  This photo shows the me activating from a picnic shelter on a beautiful spring day.

Learning CW:  Beyond the Basics

by Brian (K3ES)

I just finished my last class ever for learning Morse Code.  It was a lot of work, but it really improved my ability to communicate using the CW operating mode.  More importantly, this class taught me how to actually learn CW, by diagnosing the problems and barriers that inhibit improvement.  Then it gave me tools I can use to overcome those problems and barriers at any stage of my CW journey.  You see, I am not yet where I want to be, but I have made a giant leap forward, and I now know what I have to do to keep improving.

I guess it might help to tell you a bit about myself as a radio amateur, about the start of my CW journey, and about what motivates me to improve.

I got licensed in 2020, when I was working from home, and spending way too much time locked away from the rest of the world.  I saw a video about amateur radio, and thought it might provide an opportunity for increased personal contact despite social distancing.  I studied during my plentiful spare time, and passed the Technician, General and Amateur Extra license examinations in short order.  Once I was licensed, Elmers at Skyview Radio Society near Pittsburgh, PA helped me to learn and explore the hobby, encouraging me to be radio-active.

I found a compelling niche hunting for Parks on the Air (POTA) activators, and I started hearing about all the benefits that CW brought for activating parks:  tiny radios, efficient use of power, and automatic spotting via the reverse beacon network.  That motivated me to work on learning Morse Code.

A full CW station packed for a hike weighs just a few pounds.  This kit, based around an Elecraft KX2, fits in a small shoulder bag, includes all needed components and some spares, along with creature comforts for the activator.

I started my CW journey using a variety of apps and online tools.  I practiced with club members.  Thomas Witherspoon’s YouTube channel became a staple in my CW diet.  Every character copied was a victory.  All of this helped my ability and confidence.

I completed my first CW-only POTA activation in July of 2021, and have not looked back.  But, during one of my early park activations, I had a defining experience.  I could copy callsigns and standard exchanges with ease, but something off script would throw me off balance.

When a hunter finished his exchange and sent something followed by a question mark, I was lost.  We worked through it, and after several slow repeats, I understood that he had sent “COUNTY?”.  He wanted to know what county I was operating from.  I easily sent him the name of my county, but the experience left me certain that I needed to improve my copy skills.

It doesn’t get much better than this.  Operating CW under my favorite tree duing an activation of K-1345, Cook Forest State Park, in northwest Pennsylvania.

That certainty started me on a new phase of the journey, one involving formal training classes.  I took a few classes, and each class helped – I could look back and see the progress.  But none of them left me ready for CW communication beyond predictable exchanges.  I knew there had to be an approach to me get there, and there had to be something more efficient than working endlessly to copy code bulletins or on-air QSOs between other operators.

CW Innovations provided just that method with their Comprehensive Instant Character Recognition (CICR) Course.  CICR is not just a class, but a structured process for improvement, which includes self-diagnosis, targeted practice, a supportive learning environment, and partners working together to put new skills into practice on the air.

This figure provides an overview of the Comprehensive Instant Character Recognition Course.  Modules focused on each of the elements are introduced as the 10-week course progresses. (Click image to enlarge)

Instantly recognizing a received character is liberating.  Rather than performing mental translation, you learn to recognize each code sound pattern as a letter, number, or punctuation mark; in much the same manner that you immediately recognize the printed symbols making up the text on this page.  CICR provides the tools and methods for achieving instant character recognition, but also emphasizes that new weaknesses in character recognition will continue to appear as your copying of code becomes more challenging.  When that happens, it is time to circle back and further improve your recognition skills.  The same tools continue to work.

The course steps through increasingly challenging phases of code recognition, which include instantly recognizing characters, assembling letters into words, recognizing the sound of common words, building sentences, following a train of thought, and moving toward head copy.  Of course all of this appears to be impossible until you try it and then it starts to work.

The learning team meets twice a week on Zoom, where each team member shares how practice has been going.  They talk with the team about what is working, their problem areas, and techniques that have helped with those problems.  They also share experiences with on-air QSOs.  Other team members have the opportunity to share similar experiences, provide support, and make suggestions.

In short, class time is spent learning together how to better learn CW skills.  No code is sent or received during Zoom class time, meaning that the focus is not on individual performance.  Interestingly, this approach makes it possible for team members with different levels of proficiency to share the journey, without feeling like they are competing with one another.  Everyone celebrates each others’ successes, acknowledges their difficulties, and discovers opportunities for improvement together.  I found the group dynamic of learning together to be particularly fulfilling.

Finding and working with a Code Buddy is essential to on-air practice.  Having two partners committed to make CW communication work, is powerful.  It takes away much of the worry about not copying everything.  Both partners know that they are working to improve, and the shared knowledge that you are working together to learn makes it OK to miss things.

Something magical happened for me.

Once I was feeling that it was OK for me to not get every word being sent, I could continue longer than ever before with a practice session.  That let me discover that I could have a meaningful conversation, even when I was not getting every word!  Even when I missed a word that was important to the communication, it was OK to ask for a repeat.  Really, it always has been OK to ask for a repeat, but the Code Buddy relationship makes it safe, and that helped me to recognize that nobody can copy everything sent on the air.

Even experienced operators get hit with QSB, QRM, QRN, or an important phone call.  Asking for repeats is part of the communication process, and on-air CW is focused on communication.  So now I find myself looking forward to on-air conversations, rather than fearing them, and that is awesome!

To sum up my experience, I learned:

  1. There is a process that works to improve code proficiency,
  2. That process can be learned,
  3. Learning and improving take time and effort, but the effort can be fulfilling and fun,
  4. On-air practice is essential,
  5. Having an on-air partner makes on-air practice feel safer, and
  6. The improvement process can continue to be used at each stage of development, making future classes unnecessary.

If you have an interest in improving your ability to communicate with CW, I encourage you to take a look at the CW Innovations course on Comprehensive Instant Character Recognition.  Classes are small (about 10 team members plus coaches), but start multiple times throughout the year.  For additional information, see the following resources:

Class prerequisites are few, but important:

  • Be active on the air with CW.  Even simple exchanges are an acceptable starting point, but you need to be on the air.
  • Commit to following the process laid out in the CICR course, both practice methodology and code buddy QSOs.
  • Agree to let go of tools that you have relied on in the past, such as decoders, methods taught by other courses, or computer-based QSOs.
  • Have a station available for daily practice on the HF Amateur bands.
  • Have a computer or tablet, webcam, and internet connection for class participation.

My experience with the CICR course has made me such a believer in the process, that I volunteered for training as a CWI Coach.  One day, I hope to help others achieve their CW goals, using these process, which have enabled the giant leap forward on my own CW journey.

Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

16 thoughts on “Beyond the Basics with CW Innovations”

  1. Excellent and interesting post Brian — and congratulations for deciding to improve your CW skills and coach others.
    I’ve been a CW op for more than 55 years — and I’m still learning!
    I guess for some of us, there is always a new hill to climb 🙂

    Bruce G4ABX

    1. I congratulate and envy your progress. I failed at code in 1950 but my parents picked up along wih my sister (NY speed champ in about 1955). The I got licensed in 2010 and mothers call sign. It will not be complete until I have atleast one CW QSO. But to date dont have courage to try. Your journey sounds possible.
      73 k2djn

  2. Hi Brian, Thanks for the information about CICR. I am exactly where you found yourself. I guess that’s the problem of us older hams picking up CW. We did not get the “goofing around with friends on CW when you are supposed to do homework” boost that others may have had. 😉 As I tell the kids in my Tech class, no better time to learn all of this when your brains are still forming. I will look into CICR and that might just be the process and motivation I need.

    Karl Heinz – K5KHK

    1. Hi Karl:

      I don’t believe that one is ever “too old” to learn CW or excel as an OP, once one gets ON AIR. Success with CW is ALL about individual dedication and commitment, married with a comprehensive plan for learning. I was ON AIR with the code in eight weeks, having NO prior CW experience whatsoever, at age 68. It’s two years later and one of the designers of the CICR (Comprehensive Instant Character Recognition) method, with Glenn (W4YES) and Andrew (K0AWG). I have been a CWI coach with four of the last six CWI cadres and will tell you the average age of our Team Members (class participants) is 50+. I am no “whiz kid” or anyone with stupendous talents. CW is self-taught and no one can “teach” you the code. OPs fail to live up to their CW expectations due to the lack of a comprehensive method of “learning how to learn the code” and having the dedicated coaching necessary to support their confidence and progress. Please go back to your Tech class, Karl, with this post in mind and encourage them to learn the code and get ON AIR. Chasing POTA as a hunter is a fun way to begin their CW journey (which I continue to do) and build important ON AIR skills. Age is but a myth and an excuse for those with no true desire to learn. We are now in the CW renaissance of “HOW to Learn the Code”, to which Brian (K3ES) has attested so eloquently. As my CW mentor and POTA activator, Lane (WK4WC) always says, “If you’re not having fun, why do it?” This IS fun and that’s why we are all here!

      73 KC1FUU Jon

    2. I have always had an interest to learn CW even when code no longer was required as it’s technical simplicity is the most efficient, but as Karl stated, there’s other homework. I work with engineering embedded systems and that consumes even my off-work time learning new skills (software, hardware, functional safety and so on). Sounds like the class is mostly a motivational group. I am interested in knowing the pitfalls and roadblocks and how to overcome them that was lightly mentioned in the article.

      1. Hi Doug:

        Motivation and support from Team Members is an important aspect of the CWI method. But make no mistake, we have a comprehensive series of skill building/ training sessions and tools… from head sending, to ICR, missing fast, progressive word building, word building, progressive phrase building and beyond. We also emphasize having code buddies, to practice our training on air.

        73 de KC1FUU
        CWI Coach

  3. Great post, Brian. I also completed the CW Academy Intermediate course, which helped a lot for the faster, short, exchanges, but I’m still struggling with the unexpected questions & comments. I’ve also found Thomas’ videos to be useful practice, but it remains frustrating, since I’ve been using CW for the majority of my QSOs and still haven’t gotten over the head-copy “hump”. The CICR might be just what I need!

    73, Vic – KB7GL

    1. I also had the same issue. I have drunk the Morse code ninja coolaid. It is a very useful podcast tool if you’ve not tried it. What really helped me was listening to 2 and 3 word phrases at a higher speed than I’m comfortable with. I found practicing at 25 wpm really helped my ability to copy at 20 and under. I plan to get on the SKCC calling freq and ask for a QRS rag chew to boost my confidence. All and all I’m really happy with my one year journey to date. I still don’t understand why this isn’t recognized as a foreign language in high school. Best wishes to all the others on their individual journeys.

  4. Character recognition is when someone really knows the code. At 5wpm one does not know the code. Character recognition occurs around 12wpm for most and the reason 13 wpm was chosen for the General Class Ham license when the code was required. At 13 wpm one really knows the code. And when one gets to 13wpm they quickly advance to 20 wpm. Then “word” recognition starts to take place. Learning the code is both a skill and an art. Like any skill it takes practice. 73, ron, n9ee

  5. I have made several feeble attempts at trying to even start learning. It’s nice that there’s resources out there but they all interfere with my busy lifestyle and work schedule. When most of these courses are happening I have to go to bed because I need to get up between 2:30 & 3:30 in the morning for work. I’ve tried the Morse Ninja code learning on YouTube but can’t even get past A & N. It’s very frustrating to say the least. As far as a “code buddy” I have one that lives around the corner but not very useful if you don’t know almost any CW to begin with.

    1. Mark, did you try ? I also had a few failed attempts to start learning CW before trying on my own pace. Telling the difference between K and M in class1 was easy, then the 2nd class (K, M, U) really gave me a surprising headache. 14 months later (I know I’m slow), I did my first CW QSO by hunting a POTA, nervous and sweating. Starting is always the hardest.

      Thanks Brian for the great write-up, first time to know the CICR class. Will try to give it a try.

      1. The website is how I learned the code initially. I thought it was the best option for me because I was already a good touch typist. The website will give you immediate feedback by auto-scoring each of your de-coding sessions if you type into the webpage each morse code element you hear as it streams into your ears. This is a real time saver from other approaches that were paper based. HOWEVER, there is a downside to this approach. I have learned (the hard way) that there is a big difference having your fingers decode CW and having your mind COMPREHEND the code. I could decode 20wpm as long as I was typing things into a keyboard, but when I wanted to progress to head-copy it was a HUGE obstacle. If you really want to comprehend the code, then you will be best served by learning it in a purely audible fashion. The CICR class will show you how, using readily available online (free) tools in a very effective (and innovative) manner.

  6. Great write-up Brian! Thanks for your continuing contribution to the hobby. It was a pleasure being in the same CICR class with you and the rest of the crew. I learned a lot from you all!

    To any who read Brian’s article with an interest at improving your CW skill, I can whole-heartedly second Brian’s observations about the unique effectiveness of the CICR course. A very worth-while experience.

  7. Every method that improves your code is good. Many people skip syllables when learning the Instant Recognition method when transitioning from letter recognition to word recognition. But when a child learns a language, syllables are very important component of the process.

  8. Like many others I have done the CW academy courses., up through intermediate. Tried a few LICW sessions but then decided on CW Innovations course, which will start end of January. Am looking forward to taking morse to the next level and being alot better at head copying.

  9. I haven’t heard of the CW Innovations classes but they sound awesome. I took classes given by the CW Ops group and they really helped in my CW learning path.
    I was inspired by several things: I had a Novice license as a teenager and really enjoyed it but like many hams I left it behind due to having so many other things to do and not being able to afford the radios. But I always considered myself a ham albeit an inactive one.
    When I retired, I decided to get involved again and really loved being a part of the local club. My club didn’t have a really active “CW Guy” even though most had to learn Morse to pass the exams. But I decided that I wanted to be the “CW Guy” that my fellow club members depended on during Field Day and other contests that we participated in together. So I put in the work, and found the CW Academy classes given by CW OPS.
    My instructor for level 2 class had a weekly requirement for his students: make contacts, and do them using head copy only. During class we would talk about our contacts that week, and we all wanted to have some interesting QSOs to talk about so it really motivated us to get on the air. During the 8 weeks of the course, we all progressed from copying 13 wpm to being able to do 20 wpm. So I still do all my CW with almost all head copy, only writing down callsigns and maybe name and QTH. Keep it fun!
    Now my favorite activity is QRP CW and POTA. Plus building things, antennas and the occasional Kit, such as the great QRP LABS CW radios.
    73!!! de NG9T
    CWOPS #1936
    Gary Faust

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.