The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 4 - Building the first floor on the solid foundation

Gaining Fluency in Code to a Useful 15 wpm Level

By the time you have reached a steady speed of about 15 wpm you will have a useful and comfortable communicating tool.  This will require practice of what you already know, and you will have to push yourself in little spurts to speeds where you cannot get it all at first to reach this goal.  Such bursts in speed should be no longer than about one minute at a time, and you will be surprised how effectively this will help raise your receiving speeds.


The first secret of increasing your receiving speed is to shorten the time it takes you to recognize each code character as soon as it has been completely heard.  The shorter that time interval is, the faster you will be able to receive.  Aim to make it instantaneous.  IF YOU DO NOT INSTANTLY RECOGNIZE THE SOUND OF ANY CHARACTER, YOU HAVE NOT REALLY LEARNED IT YET.  (That is the one character you need to practice on until you know it immediately.)  The goal of practice and drill from here on is to speed up your recognition of characters, and then of words, to the point where you can both "read" them easily without writing, and copy them down more and more automatically.


In ordinary listening and reading many of us habitually anticipate what  the next word or sentence is going to be, and we are ready to jump ahead or help out.  Most of us can do this without losing anything that actually comes next:  what actually does follow just replaces whatever we anticipated.  By contrast, even at high speeds, the code signals are so slow compared  with the speed we think that for some of us anticipation can create a severe mental block, causing us to miss out completely what actually comes next.  In the very slow speed learning stages this risk is greatest.

If you become conscious that this habit is interfering with your receiving at any point in learning or later use, you should take immediate steps to prevent it.  This is most important in the early stages when we are forming code habits.  It will require discipline to concentrate on listening strictly to the incoming signals. (See next section for help in preventing anticipation.)  However, if you are conscious of anticipating but that it is not in any  way interfering with actual reception, the best thing is to forget it and keep concentrating on the incoming signals.  In this case, anticipation will not hurt.  (We also tend to evaluate what we are hearing or reading.  This is natural and should not be discouraged if it does not interfere with reception.)  A tendency to anticipate does tell us one good thing:  we haven't reached out limit yet and can learn to read code faster if we go at it in the right way.  (See Chapter 11 for further discussion of this.)


Most of the materials for practice should be in regular English and as INTERESTING as possible.  Have a VARIETY in every practice period so that nothing becomes monotonous.  Select the kind of material you intend to be working with as you use the code.  To prevent anticipating what is coming next, during the early phase of learning, some practice material in each session should consist of non-English.  Three to five minutes per session is long enough for this, unless you intend to be working with enciphered messages -- it  must not be used to a point where it becomes boring.

International amateur call signs, Q-signals and common abbreviations make good practice, because they are somewhat "random," but realistic and also useful.  "Reverse English" is good because it keeps normal letter frequencies by sending words and sentences backwards: e.g. "my antenna is up 50 feet" becomes "ym annetna si pu 05 teef," or "teef 05 pu si annetna ym." -  You can hardly anticipate those "words"!  The 100 most common words, listed at the end of this section, make excellent practice.  This not only makes you familiar with them and gives you a boost in feeling at home with the code, but also it will help you gain further proficiency as you continue to advance.  Work with them alongside other practice materials until you recognize these words, or most of them, at once as words -- patterns of sound that have meaning in code.  Along with the 100 most common words practice with some of the common phrases, such as "of the"  "I am," etc.  See Chapter 22.  Once again we must emphasize the importance of REPETITION.

The best way to get these common words impressed as units of sound to the mind is to repeat each one a number of times before going on to the next one.  Use a keyboard or computer to generate a tape, on which each word is repeated from at least three to five times.   Space the words widely enough apart that you will be able to say the word each  time after you have heard it.   Then listen to that tape over and over again, saying each word to yourself as soon as it has been sent.  Practice listening to it until the words come as easily and naturally as if you were sitting, listening and talking.  Make yourself thoroughly familiar with them.


Several other simple practices can help you gain familiarity and confidence.  One of these is to read road signs and ads you see while driving or riding,  whistling them aloud or mentally to yourself in code.  If you have friends also learning, try whistling code back and forth among yourselves as conversation.  There are lots of other possibilities -- find them and make it fun.  For example:-  The Two-Way Word Game  This is a good speed builder, and works this way:  the instructor sends a word and student sounds out the word to himself (see phonics, Chapter 7) as the letters follow one after the other to build up the word until a  space comes to show that the word is completed.

For example, the instructor sends the word "was".  As the student hears  W  he thinks "w-", then as he hears  A he combines them (WA) to think "way", and finally as he hears  S  and then silence, he thinks the word "was".  Then the student immediately sends it back to the instructor.  The student writes nothing down.  Begin with two-letter words, then four or more letters as the student catches on and speeds improve.  Remember that it is a game.  Make it fun.  Never again will you try just to retain the letters in a word; but rather the sounds of those letters, putting the sounds represented by the letters together as they come in.


Keep practice sessions short and with some RESTING time in between -- doing something else -- such as into ten minute practice periods,  followed by a five minute rests.  Three or four such periods per session are adequate at the early stages. They can be lengthened gradually so long as fatigue does not set in.  Remember that fatigue and boredom tend to defeat rapid advancement.

Teachers are divided as to whether it is better to major on receiving practice without copying or to major on copying.  The best course would seem to be to do some of both.  Some teachers insist that the student not copy for some time after initially learning the characters.  They prefer for him just to listen. The idea is to build up and strengthen sound pattern recognition without the distraction of writing.   (See Chapter 7  and Chapter 8.)

As for sending practice, it is best not begun until the student knows how good code sounds.  The sound patterns need to be firmly enough established in mind that the student can imitate them without the discouragement of hearing his own poor character formation and bad or irregular spacing, and also to minimize criticism.   It seems best to defer using a key until a receiving speed of about 10 wpm is reached.  At all times aim for beautiful, perfect sending, where the timing and rhythm produce accurately formed characters and spacings.  Aim for it, and don't be satisfied with anything less.  (See Chapter 9.)

One good form of early practice sending is to listen to a character, then send it; hear the next and then send it, etc. Another helpful way is for the student and teacher to send a short series of words or sentences simultaneously, aiming to be in unison.

Copying has the advantage of verifying accuracy of recognition and identifying areas needing improvement.  In the early stages the use of random groups is best because it avoids anticipation.       Listening practice, without writing anything down is of great importance and value.  To gain skill this should be done at speeds almost as fast as you can receive by just listening, and with frequent short burst of listening to still faster sending.  This will help the mind get used to more rapid recognition.

It has been found that it is GROUPING which largely determines how fast one can receive code.  What doesn't "MAKE SENSE" tends to slow us down.  At almost any skill level, random characters will be the slowest, and isolated, unrelated or unfamiliar words come next.  The highest receiving speeds are achieved with connected  text, and it tends to be receivable at twice or more the speed of  scrambled letters.  (Even nonsense sentences can be received fairly fast because they have a familiar pattern.)  It is the coherence of a grouping that helps speed up its recognition.

There is another factor which we should be aware of.  It is this:  when we are practicing by listening to the radio and must strain to "get" the signals -- because of weak signals, interference, static or poor sending  (trying to figure out a bad combination) or to recall some word previously sent,  this brings the conscious mind into action, to try to reason things out.  As the conscious mind works harder and harder, the receptivity of the unconscious mind tends to cease.  This mental friction interferes with advancement in the earlier stages of gaining speed, and may even bring all receptivity to a stop.  Whenever you must strain to "get" the signals -- because of interference, static or poor sending -- to try to figure out something being sent,  this brings the conscious mind into action. to try to reason things out.  As the conscious mind works harder and harder, the receptivity of the unconscious mind tends


To have a "plateau" means to be stuck at some speed.  It may be just a temporary condition which is passed over with a little more practice, or it may be something that stubbornly refuses to yield.  Several different factors may cause the stubborn kind of plateau.  A plateau is the result of interpreting the sound as something other than the letter itself.  Someone has written that it is the condition" where the conscious mind is fighting o translate, while the subconscious mind is quietly trying to get through and tell you it's got perfect copy."  A plateau is a battle in the mind,  with the conscious mind trying to translate the dits and dahs and not being able to keep up, while the subconscious mind is quietly trying to get thru and tell you it's got perfect copy.

At speeds of around  7 - 10 or so wpm it usually occurs because one is "translating" the code characters first into some intermediate form (such as a mental picture) and then translating that again into the ordinary letters.  That is a two-step operation which takes more time than the proper one-step operation does (e.g. "didah" is "A"). Such a situation is often the result of using one of the old and obsolete learning methods  Again, when the characters are initially sent too slowly the student tends to count the dits and dahs and analyze them in this way. I have known old time operators who by long practice routinely counted the components of all the longer characters to identify them at speeds up to as high as 20 wpm, or faster!  That's the way they learned them, but what a waste of time and effort!   Counting and analyzing both tend to keep the conscious, analytical mind involved where it should not be.  This will slow us down and tend to bring on needless fatigue.  One experienced old timer wrote: "Once you start becoming familiar with [code] sounds as in speech, there are no plateaus."


go  am  me  on  by  to  up  so  it  no  of  as  he  if  an  us or  in  is  at  my  we  do  be  and  man him  out  not  but  can who  has  may  was  one  she  all  you  how  any  its  say  are now  two for  men  her  had  the  our  his  been  some  then like  well  made  when  have  only  your  work over  such  time were  with  into  very  what  then  more  will  they  come  that from  must  said them  this  upon  great  about  other  shall every  these  first  their  could  which  would  there before should  little  people

(Six of these words take the same time to send as the number zero (0): are him men on so no.  Fourteen more of them are shorter still: the its to; us am if; as be we an; me at is; it.) Twenty short words.  Listening to, copying and sending the 100 most common words is good daily practice.  Also the 100 words makes good typing practice.


Our primary interest here is to help you learn and use Morse code so you can fully enjoy this beautiful mode of communication.  Passing exams is of secondary interest, though necessary to obtain full licensing so you can enjoy conversing by means of Morse code on the air.  Many students who have started out with the recommended 20 wpm minimum character speeds have found that they were able to achieve 13 wpm within as little as a week or two of intense guided practice.  It is important to know what to expect in a license examination: the format of an exam, the types of questions asked, etc., so you can practice them and not be surprised.  Such materials are available for current examinations from the ARRL and other sources.  These things  will not be treated here.  The only one who fails is the one who does not try again until he succeeds.  If this is your problem,  learn where your weaknesses lie and practice to overcome them for the next test. Many a ham has tried twice, three or more times before he passes.  Don't give up.

The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF