Teaching a child to read can seem like a mysterious, complicated process, but in most cases, children learn to read in a natural, sequential way. If you want to teach your child to read, but worry that you’ll mess it up, relax. Your early literacy efforts will pave the way to later reading success.

Early Literacy Awareness. Long before your child even learns the letters of the alphabet, she’s gaining valuable early literacy knowledge. From birth through age 3, the focus isn’t on formal teaching, but playful activities that encourage oral language and print awareness. Sing songs with your toddler or play games like peek-a-boo. Read nursery rhymes and play rhyming games. Point out words in the environment like traffic signs or words on food containers. All these simple, fun activities prime a young child’s brain for later learning.

And don’t underestimate the value of the bedtime story. Reading together is a comforting, bonding activity that teaches your child many early literacy skills. For example, before you read a book, look at the cover. Ask your child what the book might be about, based on the art. Your child is learning to make predictions through this activity. Next, casually point out that print always runs from left to right and top to bottom, suggests Erika Burton, Ph.D., adjunct professor in the Educational Research and Foundations Department at National Louis University and founder of Stepping Stones Together, an online literacy program. Finally, point to words as you read them so your child starts to understand that those squiggles equal words, which equal stories.

Alphabet Fun. Somewhere between 3 and 4 years of age, most kids express an interest in learning the letters of the alphabet. Before kids can learn to read, they must be able to recognize both uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as the sounds the letters make. Read alphabet books together and point out the letters found in common words. Explore alphabet puzzles and magnets. Don’t overwhelm your child by teaching too many letters or sounds at once, advises Stacy Hurst, reading curriculum specialist at Reading Horizons. Instead, start with the most common letter sounds. For example, teach short vowel sounds before long vowels. Writing is an excellent way to reinforce the alphabet. Write letters to grandma, make a grocery list or write stories about topics of interest. If your child’s fascinated by dinosaurs, make a list of all the facts he knows about dinosaurs. Preschoolers are still gaining fine motor skills, so offer unlined paper and don’t worry if the writing’s a bit sloppy.

Blending Sounds. Once kids recognize the sounds of the alphabet, they can begin blending letters to make words. For most kids, this is the hardest part of learning to read. Continue playing rhyming games and reading nursery rhymes. Say a simple word, such as “cat,” and ask your child to say each sound separately. Then put the sounds together to form one word. Use magnetic letters to make words. Show each letter individually and make its sound. Then move the letters closer together, slowly blending the word. Continue offering writing activities. When writing, slowly say the words out loud so your child can hear each sound. Read decodable books, such as the Bob Books series, Hurst suggests. These books start with simple words and gradually move to more difficult words.

Decoding and Fluency. The Holy Grail of early literacy, decoding and fluency, can’t be rushed. Kids progress through the stages of literacy at their own pace. Decoding is the ability to use phonics rules to sound out words. To practice decoding, continue to read decodable books. If your child seems frustrated, try this strategy: Read the book to your child, read the book together, then have your child read it alone. Some words, such as sight words, can’t be sounded out, but are common in print. Use flash cards to teach these words. Once your child can decode successfully, it’s time to work on fluency. Fluent reading is reading that sounds like talking—smooth and natural, with voice inflections and appropriate pauses. Read chapter books with your child to model fluency. Have your child read to you occasionally too. Read challenging passages several times.

That’s it—the four steps of learning to read. Although some kids have true reading disabilities that make learning to read more challenging, most kids can successfully learn to read by following these sequential steps. Make early literacy a joyful, bonding experience, and offer lots of repetition, even if that means reading a beloved picture book over—and over, and over.