By it's nature, prayer is relational and organic. It's not a set of skills to master. All of the best books and studies on prayer begin by reminding the reader not to approach prayer mechanically. This guide, then, is not about how to pray - it's about understanding the vocabulary and the component parts of what is known formally as Spiritual Theology.
What is Prayer?
Prayer is the lifting of the heart and the mind to God. Whatever the form, when we consciously turn to the Lord, we are praying. Some people will add conditions of focus, attention or sincerity to their definition. They'll say, "I wasn't really praying because I was distracted." While that kind of distinction may be helpful in spiritual direction or some other context, it's dangerous to associate what prayer is with what I get out of prayer. Many of the great spiritual masters will often talk about prayer as "useless" in the sense of accomplishing something in this world. Prayer isn't a means to an end, it's spending time with the Lord.
Types \ Flavors of Prayer
There are three fundamental types of personal prayer: conversation, meditation and contemplation. Above these is the public prayer of the Church that we call the Sacred Liturgy which revolves around the seven Sacraments and is thus more essential for our salvation and the salvation of others than our own personal prayer.
The Sacramentals of the Church like the Rosary also have their part to play in prayer even if they are technically covered already by the categories of Conversation and Meditation.
Prayer which is meant to accompany something else in the spiritual life is also important. The prayerful reading of a spiritual book is called lectio divina. The prayerful consideration of a big decision over the course of time is called discernment. Prayers which lead to or include supernatural phenomenon like seeing the Lord, the saints or angels (apparition), hearing them (locution), etc are collectively called mystical prayers. These are given specially and specifically to an individual for a purpose. Each of these is surely important, but they're beyond the scope of this guide.
Finally, I'm not going to go into the multitude of devotional prayers which include Charismatic prayer, hymns and songs as prayer, so-called Centering prayer and any number of other categories and sub-categories of private prayer. They may well be helpful in the spiritual life, but they tend to defy categorization.
Most prayer begins with conversation: speaking to God. Of course, the Lord knows our needs and our desires better than we do... Still, vocalizing those needs and desires - either aloud or mentally - orients us and helps us to bring our relationship with the Lord into the flow of our prayer time.
Vocal & Mental Prayer
Vocal prayer is the name we give to any prayer which is spoken aloud.
Mental prayer, then, is the name we give to any prayer which could be spoken aloud but it retained within our minds as part of our internal monologue.
Rote & Spontaneous Prayer
Rote prayer is the name we give to prayers whose structures are composed to be prayed in that form. The Our Father was given to us by Jesus to be prayed in that way using basically those words. Translations may make minor adjustments, but the prayer is meant to be said from memory or from a text.
Spontaneous prayer, then, is the name we give to prayers which are not taken directly from a text.
Of course, there's no need to be strict in distinguishing rote from spontaneous prayer. Many prayers improvise on the themes or outlines of rote prayers as a way of making them one's own. For example, one might say a modified act of contrition before bedtime: "Lord Jesus, I'm sorry for the way I spoke to my spouse this evening. I know it offends you who are good and deserving of my love. I firmly intend, with your Grace, to go to confession soon and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen."
The Our Father
The Our Father is generally considered to be the ideal structure for personal, conversational prayer. It begins with praise (Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.), continues with submission (Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven), then moves to intercession (give us this day our daily bread), then asks for forgiveness (forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us) and ends with spiritual warfare (but lead us not into temptation). Many saints, most clearly St. Augustine, have proposed that the Our Father is an ideal model for personal prayer.
Meditation happens when we stop talking to the Lord and begin to listen. Obviously, there will be overlap between conversational prayer and meditation. A busy mind may bring us back to conversation over and over while we are trying to meditate.
The ideal meditation takes place in total quiet by simply waiting with the Lord, but that disposition of mind is harder and harder to cultivate in the busyness of this world. As such, we can turn to scripture, to the mysteries of our Faith and to meditations written by others to orient our meditational prayer.
Typically, meditation will begin with some conversation to settle our hearts and put into a disposition of mind which is conducive to quiet. Then, we ask the Lord to help us hear His voice speaking to us in the quiet. Then, we take up our meditation text and read through it slowly. If we are struck by some word, phrase or idea, we stop and let it speak to us. If we get distracted, we ask the Lord to settle us again and go back to our text.
The most important thing to remember about meditation is that we are not trying to learn something from our text, we are merely using it to help ourselves listen to the Lord speaking to us. (When prayer accompanies study, we call that lectio divina.)
Meditation on Scripture usually involves choosing a narrative passage. The story of Jesus walking on water, for example, is usually better than a passage from Leviticus about which animals should be sacrificed in this or that context. The Gospels tend to be the best place to start unless a spiritual director recommends another specific passage.
Mysteries of Faith
The Mysteries of Faith are the name we give to all of the core beliefs of Catholicism which are beyond our human capacity to understand fully. They are not mysteries in the sense of Sherlock Holmes where an answer simply hasn't been found. They are mysteries in the sense that the Holy Trinity - where Three Divine Persons indwell One Eternal Godhead - simply can't be comprehended by our minds. Topics like the Holy Trinity, the Two Natures of Jesus, Eternal Reward, Purgatory, forgiveness, the Holy Eucharist, the "birth of God", the "death of God" and the like are excellent topics to orient our minds toward the Lord and to allow Him to speak to us in the quiet of our hearts.
Guided meditations are a dime a dozen in the modern world and can be found in books, online or in our Spam folders. They are potentially very helpful in that they might be written for a circumstance particular to you. For example, there may be a meditation about folks with marital trouble or a physical disability. On the other hand, they can be written by anyone and nowadays a title like FR. or even BP. in front of a name doesn't guarantee us anything in terms of that person standing by the Faith of Jesus Christ. In a world where we have the Scriptures and we have the Mysteries of Faith, I recommend strongly against the use of any guided meditation from anyone who doesn't have ST. in front of their name.
The highest order of personal prayer is contemplation. Contemplation is meditation without any intellectual component at all. It's not about hearing the Lord, it's about being with the Lord. This is the prayerful analogue of a long-married couple sitting together in a comfortable silence. As I noted above, we shouldn't be too quick to criticize ourselves if we can't get to contemplation right away. It takes a real, regular prayer life to sit quietly and comfortably with the Lord. Contemplation is the goal of the private spiritual life and it's meant for everyone, not just spiritual masters.
The prayers and rituals which surround the Sacraments surpass even the most saintly personal spiritual life. The Sacraments are the fundamental means of Grace in the world and the Lord conveys by them a Grace more potent than the most dramatic exorcism or the most mystical saint story. In an ideal spiritual life, the Sunday Mass (with Holy Communion received in a state of Grace) will fuel our personal prayers through the week and those prayers will make our next reception of Holy Communion (again, in a state of Grace) all the more potent and spiritual beneficial. This cycle of the Holy Eucharist being both a source and a summit of our personal spiritual lives goes back to the earliest understanding of the Church at prayer.
Those physical items which are blessed and which become a vessel of grace to us are called Sacramentals. A rosary conveys a blessing and assists us in the prayer of the Rosary which is easily the most powerful of all rote prayer. Holy Water reminds us of our baptism and provides real protection in the spiritual realm.
This little guide is meant, remember, more as a glossary than a how-to. For more excellent resources on the beginnings of the Spiritual life, I strongly recommend Fr. Thomas Dubay's Prayer Primer.