Most countries have dropped the requirement to study the Morse code to become a ham radio operator. Because of this, you may think that the Morse code is dead. But it’s not like that. Some people like nostalgia. Some like that you can create simple equipment for sending and receiving Morse code. Others like that the Morse code is much more reliable than the voice and some older digital modes. Whatever the reason, many people want to learn the Morse code and it is still part of the ham radio. The code has a reputation for being difficult to learn, but it turns out that it’s mostly because people haven’t been trained in the code in intelligent ways.
I don’t know if they still do, but some youth organizations have promoted some particularly bad ways to learn the code. The second worse way is to learn “dots and dashes” and many people have really learned that way. The worst way was to use an image like the next one to try to map the dots and dashes into letter shapes. This chart dates back at least to 1918, when a guide for girls’ guides printed it.
Even if you are a visual learner, this is a bad idea. The problem is that it is almost impossible to hear sounds at 20 or 30 words per minute and compare them to this visual presentation. Another visual method is to use a binary tree, where the left branches are dots and the right branches are dashes.
If you only need to master 5 words per minute to get a badge of merit, you can get away with it. But for real use 5 words per minute is very slow. For example, this sentence will take about 3 minutes to send at this speed. Just this one sentence.
So what are the better ways? Let’s take a look.
Sound it out
When you hear someone say the word “elephant,” you (hopefully) don’t translate it into individual letters. You can actually hear phonemes, but most people don’t even do that. You just hear a sound that your brain knows means a big gray animal with a trunk. This is what you want to get to with the Morse code. Sounds should simply mean letters without having to interpret them.
This leads to the third worst way to learn and, unfortunately, to many of us. It is very common – especially in the past – to send Morse code very slowly for beginners. This is great, but it limits you when you are trying to walk faster.
If you look at the example of an elephant, it would be like trying to learn English and your coach saying “El … .aa …. phant.” It would be easy to understand, but harder to understand people who they speak normally.
Speed up to the start: Farnsworth’s method
Today, Farnsworth’s method – named after Donald Farnsworth – is very common. The idea is to send the code at the target speed that you would like to learn, but spread it so that the average speed is much lower. For example, your coach may send with 15 words per minute but spaced, so it really is 5 words per minute.
That makes sense. You hear the sound you will hear when you are experienced. But you will have time to think about it. As you become more experienced, you reduce the gaps until you reach a normal distance.
A rarer but very effective way of learning is Koch’s method, named after the psychologist Ludwig Koch (we think it was the same Koch, famous for his records of nature). Like Farnsworth’s method, you send signals at the target speed. The difference is that you only send two characters. When the person copying the code can copy exactly 90%, the coach adds a third character to the mix. Continue with these three characters until the learner returns to 90%. Then a fourth character appears and the whole process is repeated until the learner can copy all the characters.
This is surprisingly effective because it naturally makes you pay attention to the sound, not the dots and dashes. Koch was able to teach a class of students to copy code at 12 words per minute in less than 14 hours. However, the method was not used often until recently.
Digital Age unlocks the less taken path
The problem with the Koch method is that it is difficult to do with the standard ways in which code is traditionally taught. Recordings, audio cassettes, paper cassette sending machines (such as the Instructograph in the video below) and radio broadcasts do not have an easy way to provide you with practice with the groups of letters you know, plus an extra character. It is also difficult to do in large classes because one or two slower learners will endure the whole class.
So ideally you only have one instructor for a few or even one person, or you need a computer that can send Morse code. Today it is easy, but it has not always been so simple.
If you want to learn the code, or if you want to learn it better than you know it now, Koch’s method is quite simple. If a bunch of students can learn code in 14 hours, you should too be able to. Even if you spend an hour a day, it’s only two weeks.
There are many resources, but the one we like is LCWO (Learn CW Online – CW or Continous Wave is Morse noise). The site costs nothing and will track your progress. Once you have learned it, you can practice text, words, call signs and a common ham radio station.
Even if you don’t need a Morse for a ham license, this opens up new possibilities. If you don’t want to make a radio, consider all the Arduino projects you could do when the device can signal you with a flashing LED and you can control it with a single switch. Not that we would use such a scheme to count blackjack cards. We would never do that. If you don’t want to use the computer and still need a coach, you can try this Coach of codes since 1939.