The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 12 - How Long Will It Take To Learn?

Examples Of Effective Code Learning - Your Approach Is Vital

Here is a rather leisurely, easy going approach that worked: --
Thirty Hours, One-half Hour a Day For Sixty Days To a Solid Foundation In Morse Code.
That is what Marshall Ensor's famous course given over 160 meter amateur radio-phone offered for over ten years to any and all in the 1930's period.  How did he teach?


Ensor was a High School Industrial Arts teacher who volunteered with ARRL to teach amateur radio classes.  He designed and taught "The School of the Air", covering the fundamentals of Amateur radio over his Amateur radio station W9BSP on 160 meter phone by voice and oscillator.   This was a basic course of  60 lessons given once a year each weekday over a two month period for over ten years.   He used the basic methods taught here.

Thousands of amateurs were trained with almost 100% success. His students never thought of  the code as being hard to learn..  He continually stimulated the student's interest and attention by a variety of lesson content and by his manner of speaking. He encouraged students to write or visit him and let him know how they were doing.  Every student was encouraged and he especially complimented those who persisted in their ongoing study, even though they might miss out now and then.

Each lesson was an hour long and generally centered upon one theme, presented partly by voice and partly in code. Each lesson was about half devoted to teaching the Morse code and the other half to theory, fundamentals of radio, themes of interest and government regulations.   There was enough variety to keep the student's interest peaked to know and use the code and go ahead to get a license.  To avoid any tediousness or boredom, no adjacent lessons were identical in format or content, although many code "texts" were repeated over and over throughout the series of lessons. In addition, the student was urged from the very first to obtain a good key and make an oscillator so that he could practice sending accurate code between lessons.

The code portion of Lesson One began with a short explanation of how to "vocalize" the code, that is, using "dits" and "dahs" to get and keep the student thinking of the code letters as patterns of sound  rather than as visual dots and dashes.  It was illustrated by comments such as:-
It is this sound-pattern of each letter that must be memorized.
These very important comments were restated in various ways in every lesson up to the tenth, and after that they were reinforced in almost every lesson in one way or another.  This constant hammering of the importance of sound-only drove this key point home.  They apparently all got it.  Then in that very first lesson he sent the alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks for the student just to listen to, in order to give him an overall feel for the wholeness of the code as a system of sounds.

In the following lessons up to the tenth when the alphabet only (each letter repeated three times) was sent in ABC order just to be listened to without copying.  But sometimes it was sent in character groups to be copied, writing down immediately each letter the student recognized.  Even in Lesson One the alphabet was followed by three short sayings of 5 to 9 words each.  Each saying was first read aloud -- once or twice -- then sent slowly, and finally read again.  A few lessons later everyone was to try to copy them, although only those who were somewhat advanced were expected to be able to get it all.

He apparently never sent a character at less than about 12 wpm. In the earlier lessons the upper actual limit of word speed ranged from about 5 to 10 or more wpm.  Later from time to time the upper limits were sometimes in the teens up to 25 wpm.  The beginning speed was not a progressive advance, but rather was random -- sometimes starting at 6 wpm, at other times 10 or more -- to give exposure to how the code sounds at various speeds. 12 to 14 wpm were the commonest speeds.  In the later lessons a wide variety of sentences was sent in this part of the lesson. In the earlier lessons they were familiar sayings,  helpful remarks and encouragement, and later were usually taken from the text of the lesson theme.  (After lesson 30 portions from the Radio Amateurs Handbook, and the Radio Amateurs License Manual, and finally all class B examination questions were included.)

Beginning in lesson 3 he encouraged the student to try to write them down as words separated by spaces.  If they couldn't do that yet, to write the letters in a continuous string, without spaces.  All copying to be done in ordinary handwriting, not printed.  Up to lesson 7 the average student was assumed to be able to copy the letters of the alphabet at word speeds of about 5 wpm. Beginning with lesson 8 the numbers and most common punctuation marks were added to the alphabet review and frequently also were vocalized up to lesson 27.  This was done less often in later lessons.  The first 26 lessons were dedicated primarily to establishing a firm foundation in recognizing and using the code characters.  He used an automatic tape sender from about lesson 15 to send texts at various speeds for more practice.

The obvious goal was to make the student thoroughly familiar with  the sound of each code letter, number and punctuation mark by repeatedly hearing them over and over and copying them down. Each lesson from about the twelfth also contained higher speed portions for those advancing more rapidly,and to tweak the interest of those not quite to skilled yet to try to copy.  As the lessons progressed he used different speeds up to about 25 wpm.  To avoid "ear" fatigue the code practice segments of each lesson were separated by a few minutes of spoken comments, reading of prepared text on the lesson theme or other items of general interest.

Code sections of a lesson rarely exceeded 5  to 10 minutes at a time.  In later lessons these were sometimes an active part of the teaching of  radio theory and practice.  In some lessons he also gave general comments on how to go about studying and learning.  Beginning in lesson 13 he encouraged the student to try to copy at least a letter or two behind.  After lesson 30 most of the themes were taken directly from the ARRL Radio Amateurs Handbook and the ARRL Licensing Manual which each student was urged to obtain.  These were to prepare the student for passing the radio amateur operator's test. which covered the elements of electricity and radio, the U.S. rules and regulations concerning amateur transmitting, and amateur operating practices.  His students easily passed the 10 and 13 wpm tests with flying colors.

Bruce Vaughan, now NR4Y, was one of his students. He started learning the code in the fall of 1938.  Years later he wrote like this: "I never understood why some find learning code difficult.  I remember only vaguely, when I learned to read CW, [so] I suppose my Maker installed a code reader in my otherwise hollow skull at the time of my conception."   He learned the code during that two-month radio class and then easily passed the government exam.


Steve Katz, WB2WIK,  has taught hundreds of students in classes of 5 to 15 students over the years, and says "CW surely isn't difficult."  Most of his students in a typical class,  he says, didn't know a dit from a dah, but after eight class sessions they all (except one or two) passed the 20 wpm cw element for Extra.

How did he do this? -- He tells them:" The code is the world's easiest 'language'.  It has only 26 words.  Who here can't learn 26 new words in one night?  When a person learns a new language, he doesn't think about how each word is spelled, or how many letters are in each word.   He thinks about how the word sounds, and what it means,  The same goes for learning Morse code.  Each letter has a sound and a meaning.  That's all one needs to know."

Then he begins with the simplest letters (E T I M A N S O) and progresses to the intermediate letters (U D V B W G) and then finally the last twelve. He teaches by rhythm and sound, not by "dits" and "dahs" or dots and dashes.  He teaches by vocalization and demonstration -- no assigned homework or study of any kind.  He uses his ham radio station along with an electronic keyer and key paddle to demonstrate and also uses on-the-air contacts.

His "proven CW teaching technique" after the ABC's, he describes as:--
to make the student put away his pencil and paper and just listen to the code at very high speeds, while he, Steve,  sends familiar text, including words like the names of sports teams, cities and so forth. He said: "Don't write anything down.  Just listen to the code, and if you get a little bit of it, that's fine."

He taught his nine-year-old nephew Rob (who has cerebral palsy) when Rob got interested in ham radio from watching Steve communicating with distant stations.  So Steve started teaching him the code and in about 3 weeks he passed the novice exam with flying colors at age 10.  Rob hacked around in the Novice cw bands at 5 wpm for a while, when one day he tuned where high speed operators were working each other and was intrigued that they were going so fast.  He tried to copy them but was disheartened to find he couldn't write as fast as they were sending.  So Steve  helped him out, and said: "Don't write anything down. Just listen to the code, and if you get a little bit of it, that's fine."

So Rob just listened and soon was "copying" maybe  2%, and after a few more days of listening to high-speed operators, he could copy maybe 20%, which Steve said "is more than enough to make a contact". Steve encouraged him to do just that -- make contacts with operators going much too fast to "copy".  He did that, even if he could only copy a call sign and name (Steve told him: "that's a complete contact").  It didn't take long for Rob to copy in his head very solidly without pencil and paper (Steve said: "I never use any either").  When Rob had upgraded to General Class, Steve encouraged him to hang out near the Extra Class subbands and find the really great operators to contact.  He did that, too, and within three weeks, he had increased his code speed from 5 to about 35 wpm without using tapes, computer programs or any other "artificial" means. He just did it by getting on the air and making contacts, which is how Steve says he did it, too.

When Rob was 12 he passed the Advanced exam, and also took the Extra Class exam where he passed the code element easily (100% solid), all answers correct, without writing anything down on paper, but he failed the theory parts of the exam because he hadn't had enough math yet in school.  Just before his 13th birthday he did pass the full Extra Class exam.  He now works CW contests where most QSO's are at 45-50 wpm and never writes anything down except the other station's call in his log.

This handicapped teen can "copy" at almost any speed with 100% accuracy, but he doesn't really know a dit from a dah.  He didn't learn the code this way.  Code was always the easy part for him.  Rob is certain that anyone who can't pass the code exam must be an idiot, since it wasn't very hard for him and he has a learning disability, cerebral palsy which restricts his coordination.  He had Steve's excellent example and was never told it might be "hard", so it was always easy for him.  He had a good attitude and didn't know there was any problem. There seems to be no limit to his ability.  He was learning it the right way from the very first exposure.

More Examples

The U.S. Navy during WW-2 code courses for the average person required about 3 weeks to achieve 12-14 wpm to meet the rigid Navy requirement of perfect accuracy (military operations and security at sea demanded letter-perfect accuracy).  This time, they thought, could be shortened with better teaching  methods.

Waldo T. Boyd K6DZY was a graduate of the Navy Radio Communications School.  In 3 months time he was copying 35 wpm, and not long after that was copying 50 wpm easily.  Dick Spenceley KV4AA known as "one of the world's best operators" taught Danny Weil so well that within one month Danny had earned his license and was working DX at 20 wpm.  his was the result of a good teacher and an eager student.



Katashi Nose KH6IJ (Physics Department, University of Hawaii), who became a high speed expert, taught teenagers the code for 25 years.   His students never heard that "this will be hard, you'll or you'll have to fight a plateau."   They learned rapidly to good working speeds of 20 - 30 wpm in two to three weeks.

The fastest code learner we have ever heard of so far started code practice for the examination just one week before he took the test and passed it!   You say: "Wait a minute.  What goes on here?"  You're right, there is a history behind this achievement.  What was it, and what can we learn from it?

It was his conditioning, his background.  That played a crucial part.  His father was a skilled telegrapher at a country railroad station.  His earliest childhood memories were of sitting, fascinated, on the floor in his father's telegraph office listening to the sounder clicking. Unconsciously he learned to recognize when his Dad's station was being called, and when he did, he would go to get his Dad.  It was only after he was quite a bit older that he realized that not all adult men could automatically read Morse code in the same way that they could read and write English!

His mind had become so sensitized to the sound of Morse code from birth and so saturated with it that, when the time came to learn it properly, he had absolutely no hang-ups at all about "not being able to do it".  He was totally conditioned and prepared.  And in addition he may have felt, as almost every teenager does, that "whatever Dad can do, I can do better".  Not many of us are so fortunate as to have this kind of background, but does his history suggest anything we could do? Is there some way I can condition my mind to make it easier? Isn't it the old story: what is familiar to us doesn't seem hard -- it is easy.

Gary Bold, ZL1AN, well-known teacher in New Zealand, related this story of a friend of his, and suggests one way to approach it that works, even though it may sound silly.  This is by playing high quality code tapes in the background (like music) while you're driving to work, washing the dishes, cleaning the car, etc.   You don't even have to listen to it consciously, he says. -- Will it work?   It's certainly worth a try.

At the lowest skill levels: four-years-olds, barely able to write even block letters have been able to pass the code test. How many of us are willing to admit a four-year-old can outperform us?  Then consider these higher skill levels:

Determination and Persistence

How long it should take depends on various factors.  The first essential is how we approach -- this is vital.  Am I prepared? Do I really want to learn?  Will I stick to it?  Am I determined to do it?  All these are essential to rapid success.


Old American Morse operators, using the old visual, then widely practised methods of teaching and experience, took about six months to reach about 15 wpm and about two years to reach an expert phase.  Their code with its internal spaces does require more timing sense than International Morse.

During WW-I in America, the urgent need for wireless operators shoved most of them them out the door into military service with only a bare code proficiency, no experience in operating either the equipment or the procedures.

WW-II American military radio training schools provided more rigorous code training, and some of them included, in their later phases, operational experience with wired QSO's and even included interference.  These practical exercises sometimes introduced progressively worse QRM.  Some courses introduced typing from the very first, but for advanced students typing was the rule.   Those receiving high speed training also learned to copy high speed press.  It is easy, and need not  take long to learn the Morse code if one goes at it prepared with the right attitudes and methods.

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