Due to continued discussion threads on the email reflector on the topic of head copy methods and copy techniques at higher speeds, I'm posting this reworked version of an email reflector post I made in early December 2009 for reference.
Head Copy, An Alternative Method: Phonic Copy
As with any processes, there are alternate methods to achieve an end goal. Since I hadn't seen it depicted yet in the various discussions about head copy, I want to share the method I use. Like many have testified, my transition from written to head copy came by operating true mobile CW operation (in motion.. as opposed to portable operation) where written copy is impossible / impractical.
Before we break down the phonic method of head copy, let's first consider basic code reception with the following concept from Steve, N8CPA: "Letters are graphic representations of sound. Code is an aural representation of graphic representations of sounds." At the beginner level of code reception, code elements are received audibly, mentally converted to a letter representation of that code element, then that letter representation is written down. Comprehension of the content of the message occurs only after the written letters are constructed into words and sentences. As proficiency increases, the speed of this conversion improves, and perhaps the method of writing down each letter becomes more efficient. But the basic process is unchanged as speed increases. Various speed plateaus are reached due to bad habits, poor writing techniques and ultimately, the limit induced by the time required to mentally convert from audio element to letter representation to written form.
Most head copy methods that you see described involve learning to recognize word code patterns rather than individual letters. Variations also include using a mental 'blackboard' to queue up letters until a word is recognized. Comprehension occurs after each word pattern is completed and recognized. These word recognition methods have been used by countless operators successfully over the years. Since the written portion of the process is removed, copy speed naturally is improved. And while I understand the concept of recognizing word patterns.. I often wonder what happens when a word arrives that you haven't yet learned to recognize pattern wise? Comprehension, while vastly improved over written copy, is still stuttered. I want to be clear, I'm not saying the word pattern method is wrong or invalid. To me, it just seems less efficient (and comfortable) than the method I'm about to describe.
The phonic copy method can be summed up by altering Steve's concept above to read: "Code is an aural representation of a phonic sound." That means, as elements (letters / numbers) are received, they are phonically pronounced in the mind rather than visualized graphically as whole words. One universal principle to increasing copy speed is to remove the number of steps or conversions it takes from reception to comprehension. By eliminating the conversion from aural representaion to graphic representation, phonic copy allows instant comprehension, many times even before a word is completed. As Drew, AF2Z aptly states: "You can hear a word building to completion as it streams by, not as a unit word sound that pops into your mind .... (and) not as individual letters that you have to assemble either. It's more like spoken words that are being pronounced rather slowly."
To expand on and better demonstrate the phonic copy concept, let's use the word "PRONOUNCED" as an example. I doubt this would be a word that many using the word pattern recognition method would have practiced and learned before hand as it is not a common word used in QSOs. Look at the word 'P R O N O U N C E D' and step through it phonically letter by letter in your mind. Each letter has a distinct phonic sound associated with it. This phonic method (thanks to Walt, W5ALT for helping give it a name) is the same process, except instead of visually stepping through the word as you just did, the phonic sound elements are recognized (verbalized in the mind) as each code element is audibly received. There is no visualization, letter queueing or pattern recognition involved (other than converting the code elements into phonics). Numbers are simply recognized as you would speak them. Punctuation and prosigns are recognized easily by their pattern.
Copying this way, there are no unrecognized (not yet learned) patterns or words to worry about. Nor is there a queue of letters to keep track of (blackboard method). The code simply flows as a phonically pronounced stream of words and numbers in the mind. Comprehension is instantaneous, as opposed to waiting for a pattern (word) to be recognized. As with other head copy techniques, this method is easier to use the faster the code is sent. So it doesn't lend itself to extreme QRS speeds.
You could compare these two head copy techniques to, on one hand, seeing a stream of written words pop up on a computer screen (visual / graphicly recognized pattern method), versus having words spoken out of a speaker of that computer (phonic method). Or more simply, the difference between reading vs listening. And as reading still involves a conversion from written pattern recognition to pronounced words in the mind, that extra step is removed using the phonic method right off the bat. Admittedly, I have not experienced the visual / pattern recognition head copy technique that has been discussed. But it would still seem to me that phonic (pronounced) copy would be a more fluid and easily learned method. It simulates an audible conversation with someone, as opposed to a chat room conversation. Perhaps it's a different part of the brain. All I can tell you from personal experience is using this technique, my head copy speed skyrocketed to over 45 wpm, and has easily translated down to slower speeds. Copying 'Conversational CW' at QRQ speeds using the phonic method is truly effortless, relaxing and achieves that nirvana state where the code becomes a language, not just a code representing letters and numbers.
I offer this as an alternative method / perspective for head copy that has worked for me and others. For whatever reason, it hasn't been documented to my knowledge like the word recognition method. Take it or leave it. Your mileage may and will probably vary. No warranty expressed or implied.
What ever method you use.. enjoy CW. As long as we communicate, and have fun while doing so.. we've achieved the ultimate goal.
Your thoughts welcome.