The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 5 - Practise To Gain Proficiency

When you have reached about 15 wpm code will have become a useful tool for communication: You will have become an operator.

However, it is pretty slow, but now you have come to feel some satisfaction of mastery, and can see that to be able to handle somewhat higher speeds will greatly improve your communication skills.  How shall we go about it?  -- Mere repetition won't do it   We need intelligently directed practice -- it must be done in the right way.  This is what we discuss now.


For the sake of discussion, we may divide advancement somewhat arbitrarily into four stages.  which we will call:

Each stage should bring increasing personal pleasure in accomplishment up to whatever point you feel satisfied with and have no desire to go further.

You determine where that point is.  Advancing is by  "changing gears"  like going from"low gear" where we recognize characters, to 2nd gear where we recognize small words and some common syllable as units of sound, 3rd gear where we have increasing freedom from conscious spelling and sense of increasing pleasure as one hears and sends words pretty much as words, and then finally "overdrive" where we are hardly conscious of spelling except occasional rare words or proper names, and are hardly conscious of exactly which words are used, but mainly of the ideas.

Reaching higher speeds will turn out to be easier than you might suppose.   It is mostly a matter of determination, right approach and practice, and building on what you already know. Your rate of gain will depend mostly on how you go about it, and will be about proportional to the square of the time invested. So, how far do you want to go?  (Remember: it is not speed, but accuracy that counts --. We want to communicate.  Time is lost by mistakes, whether in sending or copying.)  So take one step at a time, and when satisfied, stop.  When we read a book, the bigger the "bites" we take, the faster we can read and understand.  It is the same in telegraphy:  how much can we take in and immediately perceive as a "unit?"  How big are the units?  This determines how fast we can receive the code.   It is the COHERENCE of the groupings --what makes sense -- which makes for rapid recognition. Whenever something doesn't make sense it tends to slow us down.

Word recognition is what makes a proficient operator.  The real "alphabet" of the expert telegrapher is largely one of words; it is his "language," and interpreting it is as easy for him as talking and listening.  (See "Kinds of Practising"  for an exercise to help develop this.)    It cannot be stated too often that: The skilled operator does not hear the dits and dahs,  but only the letters, words, sentences.   R E L A X   and  E N J O Y   I T  We need to remind ourselves, that if anyone else can do it, we probably can too. How ?  The "pro" in code is completely relaxed:  he knows he can read and copy it, even while doing something else.  He hears it like the spoken word and often can even remember it well enough to copy it down later if he needs to.  He doesn't get get tensed up.  He is a good model, whatever speed he has achieved.  If you know one, imitate him and keep relaxed and enjoy the challenge of advancing all the while you are progressing.  If you don't know any expert code operators, watch any skilled performer, a violinist, a pianist, a tennis player.  See how easily he goes about it.

ENJOY the experience of learning.  Make each practice period fun.  Those who engage in the learning process with a carefree, unhurried, unworried attitude and enjoy it   progress the fastest.  So don't press your ultimate objectives, don't try too hard, this will hinder our advancement.  Be content to go ahead a step at a time.  We need to let go any unconscious resistance, and permit our subconscious minds to function without interference.     The more we give ourselves permission to let go of any concern and the more fun it is, the better we will do.      Someone has written: "When I'm fresh and right on it [which means he is all keyed up and going to try too hard], my code speed is really bad,  but when I'm tired I can keep up with the best of them [because he has let go]."   (Please review Chapter 2 for details.)

One ham who is a docto


In pushing for higher speeds, advancement is pretty much up to you.  So what follows is directed to you.  However, the principles expressed here are fully applicable to a teacher at any level from beginning to the highest level.  Try to plan your practice periods so that you can see or feel you have accomplished something in each and every session. Maintain a positive attitude.  See how far you have come. Imitate the good beginning teacher who shows his students how the bits and pieces will soon fit together to make words, and how the context can help to fill in what's missing; and how to learn from failures -- things that need more practice -- and to learn from them how to do better next time.

Encourage yourself to keep going and not give up.  Know you can succeed.  Visualize success and be encouraged. It also helps to provide some small reward after each practice session.  In developing speed, we need to push without pushing too hard or for too long at a time, just a minute or two.  It seems best to start a practice period with speeds faster than you are comfortable with,  pushing when your energy is initially high (to recognize sound patterns more quickly), then slowing down a bit to a more comfortable rate.  This way you will be able to see your improvement -- growing.  Keeping a record will help you see your progress.

Learning does not stop when a practice period ends -- it continues on for a while afterward as the mind continues to digest it, provided that we relax or do something quite different.   So space your practice periods widely enough apart to give learning a chance to maximize.


There are several kinds of practicing we can do:

Let's consider each one:

Listening Practice

Listen, Listen, Listen to well-sent code.  Listen at every opportunity as well as at planned practice sessions.  Listen to the radio, to tapes, to computer-generated materials.  Do it whenever you don't have something else to do which requires conscious mental activity: try it during lunch, while driving -- listen and enjoy it.  There are several kinds of listening  -- first, listening at any speed where we can understand all or nearly all of what is sent; next, there is listening at speeds where we can "read" maybe 75% of it; and finally there is listening to sending so fast that we can only catch some letters or a word here and there.

Each kind is valuable to us.  Our purpose in listening at "easy" speeds is two-fold.  We want to feel comfortable with the code, just as we normally read and talk without struggling with how we do it.  To become comfortable we need to get familiar with the everyday day words and expressions, how they sound.  (Engaging in personal QSO's -- over the air or through a wire -- is one way, and it provides a strong motivation.)  We need to feel comfortable, too, at various speeds, from slow to as fast as we can handle it.  Listening over this range helps gain this familiarity.  This is a second goal.  But take it easy.

When we let the mind be quiet and just listen to very fast code, letters and words will soon begin jumping out at us.  Want to hear them.  This stimulates the mind.  Learn to see them on your "mental blackboard."  (There is a limit as to how fast we can spell words.)  Give yourself permission to let go of the need to consciously recognize each letter.  The less we "try," the better and faster we can become.  That is, let the subconscious, automatic mind operate without restraining it by conscious interference and control.

Listen at every opportunity to good sending even if it is somewhat too fast for you to get it all.  Listen.  Listen. Listen while doing other things that do not require close mental attention.  Let your "ears be filled" with good code signals. Don't let ourself get all wound up: keep relaxed.  -- The mind is strange -- it relaxes when asked to perform at a rate lower than it is used to, but tends to tighten up when asked to perform at a level which it thinks it can't quite hack.  The essence of code learning, like language, is FAMILIARITY -- that means overlearning.  That is, learning to the point where it is automatic, without thinking about how we are doing it: the dits and dahs, or even the words.  The highest skill comes when in reading by ear, we are conscious only of the ideas being expressed, just as if we were talking.  This is communicating at the highest level.

Word Recognition Practice

Are anticipation and delayed perception related?  We previously noted that we must not attempt to identify a character, particularly a longer one, until the whole character has been received.  Here we are concerned with word recognition in the same way.  Not jumping to a conclusion about what the total word will be when it is a long or compound word but waiting until it is complete before identifying it.  Suggested drills are with compound words such as "wayside, mockingbird, chairman, salesman, notebook, lifetime, customhouse, morningglory hereabouts doorbell, nevertheless watermelon household", etc. and words with suffixes such as "cheerful, personable, fellowship. finality, dictionary, mechanically, characteristic", etc.,  or where the first part make look like an independent word, but with a totally different meaning as it stands or e.g.  "axiom, category,  handicap,  climax,  magnificent".

Copying Practice

Copying at easy speeds is of some, but not great value for improving speed.   To improve we must keep working at short bursts of a minute or so at a time, at speeds where we can get maybe only 50 - 75% of it -- where it is just too fast for us -- speeds where we write down what we can get and ignore the rest.  IF YOU DON'T RECOGNIZE A SOUND PATTERN IMMEDIATELY, JUST SKIP IT, LEAVE A SPACE AND GO AHEAD. --  Never let yourself stop to try to figure it out, because if you do, you will miss what immediately follows.  Don't frustrate yourself this way.  Keep pressing on, copying what you  immediately recognize and ignoring the rest.  Remember that here we are only practicing -- missing out is no big deal --  at this point we're still learning.  We must condition ourselves to this.  Gradually the holes will fill in and we will be getting it all,  and without straining.

Often, even when we're trying to make good copy, missing a letter here and there won't matter much.  If we are interested, the gaps can often be filled in later from the context.  After reaching a fair speed, it is helpful to copy long enough to become tired and then still keep on copying.  As the conscious mind gives up and stops guessing, this lets the subconscious mind more and more take over.  Then any mental strain you feel will subside, and you can copy page after page, and yet may hardly be aware of a single sentence in it.

For teachers: Sometimes it may prove best to let the student think the speed is slower that it actually is.  That way he may just go ahead and copy it anyway! 

Random character practice at speeds above about 15 - 20 wpm is of questionable value unless you are planning to do a lot of copying of enciphered messages.  It tends to prevent the development of the important sense of word recognition, something which we must develop for normal use of the code in communication.  Practicing with words spelled backwards is a good substitute for random groups: it eliminates anticipation, yet gives give normal letter distribution and the feeling that one is dealing with words, not nonsense.  Foreign language texts may also be used profitably, where no special characters used diacritical marks, etc.

Sending Practice

Using a Key To Practice  "It is more blessed to send good code than to receive it."  MOST CW OPERATORS ARE MORE IMPRESSED BY QUALITY OF THE CODE THAN  BY SPEED.  Readability is the number one requirement.  It is the sender with his key who has control of this.  If it isn't intelligible, what's the use of sending it in the first place?  Most people consider sending easier than receiving.  This is hardly surprising, because we already know ahead of time what we are going to send before we send it. However, we may be fooling ourselves unless we have developed accurate sending habits. There is no excuse for sending sloppy cw.  When we get in a hurry we may tend to shorten or eliminate spaces between characters in familiar words and between words - this makes it very difficult to read. (When static or interference is present, it is even harder.)  And -- if we think we can send faster than we can receive it is very often hard stuff to copy.

Remember that WHAT WE DO REPEATEDLY IS PRACTISE, whether we are learning or using code.  We need to watch the quality of our sending as we use the code, not to slip into bad habits.  Most bad fists have probably come about from imperceptible shifts away from good timing.  Avoid the use of buzzers for practice, as they have a delayed start and promote bad sending habits.  Use an oscillator instead.

Mental Practice

Thinking between regular practice periods is one of the many valuable means of learning.  It is both thinking about the skill you are developing and thinking the skill itself.  One way is to think the code to yourself when you see a street sign, car licence plate or other printing. It is even more effective to whistle it or say it out loud in rapid dit-dahs.  Another valuable form of mental practice is the picturing of yourself using the code, as described in Chapter 2.

On The Air Practice:-   "Reality Listening" and QSO Practice  Don't hesitate after you get your license to go on the air.  If you flub up, remember that just about everybody's first few contacts are more or less "failures".  Stumble through them, muddle through and make it as easy as you can.

If you miss, stay calm, ask for repeat if it seems important.  If you don't understand some abbreviation or word (he may have spelled it wrong) muddle thru.  Laugh off your blunders.  Become comfortable about it. You have no job to lose.  Listening by pulling weak stations out of interference and static is a skill to be learned.   A good IF or audio cw  filter will help.  If you have one, practice using it.  Static crashes which take out pieces of text is another problem:  filters can sometimes help, but  some have found that by using speeds up to around 20-25 wpm the characters may be squeezed in between crashes, and so less may be lost.  This is one incentive for advancing in speed.

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