- Realize that learning Morse code is not hard. However, it takes diligent practice to become proficient. Think of it as learning to play the piano, but without taking years to become proficient.
- Learn the characters using the Koch or Farnsworth method. Try both. One approach will work better for you than the other.
- Learn the characters at a speed of 20wpm. If using the Farnsworth method, increase the spacing between characters and words to start with an overall speed of 10wpm. If you can count the dits and dahs, start at a higher character speed. You may need to go as high as 30wpm.
- Develop a habit of practicing regularly. More frequent practice for shorter periods is more effective than fewer more extended sessions. Ideally, practice twice a day for 10 to 15 minutes every day.
- Set a goal for the level of proficiency you want to achieve and write it down. This simple act will improve your chances of accomplishing your goal! Read this for more details.
- Keep a log of your practice and proficiency. Look back on it when you fail to see all the progress you have made. Persistence pays off.
- If you get bored with your practice routine, change it up. Keep it fresh and fun. Perhaps practice with a friend.
- Learn to copy all the characters before learning to send. This will help you listen for the sound pattern of characters instead of counting dits and dahs.
- If you run into difficulty, seek out the help and advice of an elmer.
- Use efficient practice methods and techniques. Some methods are not efficient compared to others and will take you longer to reach your goals. Seek out the advice of an elmer if you do not see the progress you expect.
- Consider learning or improving your proficiency with Morse code by taking a CW Academy class. It is a free online class where you can get personalized guidance.
- Protect your hearing! Listen to Morse code at the lowest usable volume, especially if using headphones.
- Don't learn Morse code at 5wpm!
- Don’t use Morse code sound-alikes! It is tough to let go of this mnemonic as you transition to higher speeds.
- Don't use a Morse code tree or any other kind of visual representation to learn Morse code.
- Don't memorize the sequence of dits and dahs for each character. Conscious thinking is slow compared to the unconscious mind's ability to process information. Using a lookup table is difficult, and it will prevent you from going faster than 10 to 13wpm.
- Avoid repeating characters in your mind. Work to develop Instant Character Recognition.
- Don't learn to send without continuous evaluation of your timing. Use an elmer or software to monitor your progress. It can be challenging to break bad habits formed early on.
- Avoid becoming tense and stressed as you practice. If you miss a letter or word, let it go.
If you are running into difficulties learning Morse code, consider the following dirty dozen. They are twelve interrelated problems caused primarily by improper teaching or self-learning techniques coupled with bad habits formed during the learning and proficiency improvement process. Most students encounter one or more of these problems through the course of gaining proficiency. (The credit for this section goes to Jack Ritter, W0UCE, Silent Key. The entire article can be found here.)
1. Anticipating what is being sent: A common problem develops when paper and pencil are used to write or print each letter as it is sent versus learning to copy complete words by their distinct rhythm and sound by ear.
For example, the letters A N Y are written down individually, and the person copying them down is focused on each letter. They have no idea of words or sentence flow. They are not learning to use Morse as a language and are merely copying down individual characters. Then if the next letter to follow ANY is W, the mind's eye anticipates ANYWAY or ANYWHERE. If a different letter than what is expected follows, their focus is diverted. This is the problem with anticipation.
The most efficient way to overcome anticipation is to learn to recognize complete words by their unique sound and rhythm while learning to copy by ear and copying behind. Practice identifying the sound and rhythm of the most common double letter, two and three letter combinations based upon the frequency of usage in the English language helps to form word sounds.
Common double letter combinations: ll, ee, ss, tt, oo, mm, ff, pp, rr ,nn, cc, dd - The thirty most frequent two-letter combinations comprise one third of all letter usage: th, he, in, er, an, re, on, en, at, es, ed, te, ti, or, st, ar, nd, to, nt, is, of, it, al, as, ha, ng, co, se, me, de - The most common three-letter combinations are: the, and, tio, ati, for, tha, ter, res, ere, con, ted, com, hat, ent, ion, nde, has, ing
2. Attention loss, lack of accuracy: Attention loss is often related to Problem 10 during the learning phase and often causes frustration. Practice sessions should not exceed thirty minutes in duration. Break up practice sessions in ten or fifteen-minute increments. And practice thirty minutes a day, seven days a week.
Lack of accuracy is related to Problems 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 10. There is no substitute or better way to learn and improve proficiency than learning to copy by ear and only take notes versus putting individual characters on paper. Practices learning the sound of short words then progress to short phrases such as my dog. Then add a follow on word to start building phrases and sentences. Common QSO exchanges help build confidence to get on the air.
3. Counting Dits and Dahs: Learning Morse code by counting Dits and Dahs is a terrible habit that is difficult to break. Counting is typically caused by learning Morse at 5 or 10 words per minute character speed. While some instructors endorse using the Farnsworth method, adding extra space between characters often leads to unintentional counting. And a long delay can allow a student to replay the sound pattern in their head. (Counting is directly related to Problems 7, 8, 9, and 12.)
Consider starting with a 20wpm character speed with a bit of extra space between short words. For example, TEA followed by EAT. Then progress to three-word phrases. Eliminate extra spaces between words as quickly as possible to learn and use Morse with normal speed and spacing. Why teach or learn at 5 or 10 wpm when it just as easy to learn at 20wpm.
4. Dit and Dah Transposition: Transposition is primarily related to learning at slow character speed and tone frequency being either too low or too high for an individual’s hearing frequency range. The most common character reversals or transposition are: er-re, es-se, an-na, it-ti, on-no, en-ne, ot-to, ed-de, st-ts, at-ta, ar-ra, in-ni.
To overcome the problem of transposition, practice copying and sending the numbers 1 through 10.
5. Inability to break old habits: The obvious answer to overcoming this problem is not to develop bad habits in the first place! Bad habits developed in the early learning stage are the most difficult to overcome.
The key to breaking old habits is to focus on exercises, methods, and techniques that help overcome or break specific old habits. The first step is to determine what bad habits individuals have and make a list. Then focus on overcoming the worst bad habit or habits first. Develop a plan and follow it.
6. Inability to copy behind: This problem is directly related to Problem 12. Until students or those with experience "break the pencil and toss out the paper" and learn to copy entire words by their distinct sound and rhythm, this problem will automatically become problem 5, 8, 9 and 10. And this problem must be broken to become proficient and use Morse code as a language.
To overcome this problem, set up exercises comprised of short word phrases. Repeat two or three times if necessary and practice retaining phases such as MY RED HAT, HER OLD CAT, BIG BAD BEN, UR RST 599, MY RIG IS A K3.
7. Inability to distinguish spaces and timing: This problem is usually related to learning to copy at slow speed and copying individual letters versus words. Concerning sending, we can tune the bands most any day and hear poorly formed code. This sender is said to have a "bad fist."
While an experienced instructor will not encourage using code readers, new radios such as the Elecraft K-3 can display Morse as it is sent. Students can benefit by using a Morse display actually to see that they are sending with proper character spacing and timing. Watching a display while practicing sending helps overcome spacing and timing issues.
8. Increasing speed: This problem concerns copying and is directly related to every other problem on the Dirty Dozen List. Identify and address each problem individually. This will make increasing speed easier to achieve.
Then if you are still stuck, consider that most everyone reaches a "plateau" or bump in the road where they seem to be stuck at a certain speed. To overcome problems with a given plateau or bump in the road, "jump the bump." For example, if you are stuck at 20wpm, increase the speed to 21 or 22wpm. Increasing the speed by even one or two words per minute is the best way to increase receiving speed proficiency.
9. Lack of confidence: This problem is usually related to "getting on the air" and making QSOs. One way to gain confidence is to have QSOs with yourself. Use a code practice oscillator or key the sidetone on a transceiver without going on air. Make up a list of QSO exchanges using different call signs, names, and QTH, and then use it to practice with yourself.
Even if contesting is not something an individual wants to do, they are excellent confidence builders as the exchanges are short (except for the Sweepstakes) and there are plenty of state QSO parties to take part in. Practice makes perfect.
10. Mental fatigue: This problem is common with many activities, and practicing Morse code is no different. Too much too often is not productive. Don’t practice when you are tired or just after coming home from a hard day at work. Consider practicing when relaxed, early in the morning when you are fresh, or whenever you have a genuine desire to practice. The latter being the best time. Contest or Radio Sport participants are well aware of what a toll fatigue can do to their performance. Don’t overdo it.
11. Memorization versus hearing words: This problem is directly related to problems 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7. Until individuals develop the ability to recognize complete words by their sound and rhythm, copying behind, and use Morse as a language, this problem will remain on their bad habit list. To overcome this problem practice copying by ear and copying behind.
12. Writing or typing each letter as it is heard: This problem is the significant obstacle standing in the way of becoming proficient in Morse code. It is our worst enemy and by all means, the first bad habit to break. Break the pencil and toss out the writing pad to learn to copy by ear and copy behind. It should be the number one priority for every beginner or anyone with the desire to improve their skill in using Morse code. Learn to use it as a language; this is a rule of thumb to live by.