Most countries have dropped the requirement for learning Morse code to become a ham radio operator. Because of that, you might think Morse code is dead. But it isn’t. Some people like the nostalgia. Some like that you can build simple equipment to send and receive Morse code. Others like that Morse code is much more reliable than voice and some older digital modes. Regardless of the reason, many people want to learn Morse code and it is still a part of the ham radio scene. The code has a reputation of being hard to learn, but it turns out that is mostly because people haven’t been taught code in smart ways.
I don’t know if they still do, but some youth organizations used to promote some particularly bad ways to learn the code. The second worse way is to learn “dots and dashes” and many people did learn that way. The very worst way was using an image like the adjacent one to try to map the dots and dashes into letter shapes. This chart dates back to at least 1918 when a Girl Guides handbook printed it.
Even if you are a visual learner, this is a bad idea. The problem is, it is nearly impossible to hear sounds at 20 or 30 words per minute and map them to this visual representation. Another visual method is to use a binary tree where left branches are dots and right branches are dashes.
If you only need to master 5 words per minute to get a merit badge, you might get away with this. But for real use, 5 words a minute is very slow. For example, this sentence would take about 3 minutes to send at that speed. Just that 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 do not (we hope) translate that into individual letters. You might actually hear phonemes, but most people don’t even do that. You just hear a sound that your brain knows means a large grey animal with a trunk. That’s what you want to get to with Morse code. Sounds should just mean letters without having to interpret them.
That leads to what might be the third-worst way to learn and, unfortunately, a way many of us did learn. It is very common — especially in the past — to send Morse code very slowly for beginners. That’s great, but it limits you when you try to go faster.
If you consider the elephant example, it would be like if you were trying to learn English and your coach said “El….uh….phant.” It would be easy to understand her, but harder to understand people speaking normally.
Speed Up to Start: The Farnsworth Method
Today the Farnsworth method — named for Donald Farnsworth — is very common. The idea is to send the code at the target speed you would like to learn, but space it out so the average speed is much slower. For example, your coach might send at 15 words per minute but spaced out so it was really 5 words a minute.
That makes sense. You hear the sound you’ll hear when you are proficient. But you’ll have time to think about it. As you get more proficient, you reduce the gaps until you are at normal spacing.
A less common, but very effective way to learn is the Koch method named after a psychologist Ludwig Koch (we think it was the same Koch famous for nature recordings). Like the Farnsworth method, you send characters at the target speed. What’s different is that you send only two characters. When the person copying the code can copy 90% accurately, the coach adds a third character to the mix. You continue with those three characters until the learner is back to 90%. Then a fourth character shows up and the whole process repeats until the learner can copy all characters.
This is surprisingly effective because it naturally makes you pay attention to the sound and not the dots and dashes. Koch was able to teach a class of students to copy code at 12 words per minute in under 14 hours. However, the method wasn’t often used until recently.
Digital Age Unlocks the Path Less Taken
The problem with the Koch method is that it is hard to do with standard ways code was traditionally taught. Records, audio tape, paper tape sending machines (like the Instructograph in the video below), and radio broadcasts don’t have an easy way to provide you practice with the groups of letters you know plus one additional character. It is also difficult to do in large classes because one or two slower learners will hold up the entire class.
So, ideally, you have one instructor for just a few or even one person, or you need a computer that can send Morse code. That’s easy today but it wasn’t always so simple.
If you want to learn the code, or if you want to learn it better than you know it now, the Koch method is pretty simple. If a bunch of students can learn code in 14 hours, you should be able to, as well. Even spending an hour a day, that’s only two weeks.
There are plenty of resources, but one we like is LCWO (Learn CW Online — CW or Continous Wave is ham-speak for Morse code). The site costs nothing and will track your progress. Once you’ve learned it, you can practice text, words, callsigns, and common ham radio exchanges.
Even if you don’t need Morse for a ham license anymore, it does open up new opportunities. If you don’t want to do ham radio, think of all the Arduino projects you could do where the device could signal you with a blinking LED and you could command it with a single switch contact. Not that we’d use a scheme like that to count blackjack cards. We’d never do that. If you don’t want to use the computer and still need a coach, you could try this 1939 code trainer.