Many thanks to Brain (K3ES) who shares the following guest post:
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.
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.
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.
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:
- There is a process that works to improve code proficiency,
- That process can be learned,
- Learning and improving take time and effort, but the effort can be fulfilling and fun,
- On-air practice is essential,
- Having an on-air partner makes on-air practice feel safer, and
- 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:
- CW Innovations website: www.CWInnovations.net
- House of Ham’s YouTube video with the CW Innovations team: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBlWa1lObUA&pp=ygUMaG91c2Ugb2YgaGFt
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