When is reading not reading? When it's listening, or looking at pictures. Isn't reading technically the interpretation of established symbols (writing, ususally of a printed nature)? Is it? The august OED has several things to say about the verb read, definitions including 1) to look at and comprehend; 2) hear and understand the words of; and 3) to interpret the significance of. So, if reading includes all of these senses, then when your toddler takes in a picture book with you, they themselves are reading in two senses of the word, as you supply the third. And, as we know, this is an important stage in the skill of reading as we commonly accept it.
With that out of the way, let's look at the whole experience of reading.
Have you ever watched the movie of your favorite book and found yourself a little disoriented? This is especially apt to be the case where the original book did not have illustrations. One of the great values of reading is the imaginary world we create of a story, woven of the bright bits and pieces of our own familiar experience grafted into the unfamiliar fictional world. We imagine the story - that is, we form images of how we believe it should look. (From the Latin imago - image!) Therefore, we are a little put out when Hollywood changes the picture.
The picture books we read to young children are interesting in their reading function. They are usually so overwhelmingly visual that they can almost subvert the story. They range from books which are only pictures - no words at all - to long pages of text, but all have a fairly predominant visual aspect. These are books that are most commonly read aloud to children, and, in so doing, give an important but preliminary reading experience. Illustrations which are informative (a letter B - with a picture of a bee, for example) can assist comprehension, whereas a picture of guitar-strumming flea might be considered fun but maybe not so educational. (And who cares? Not everything has to be a teaching moment.)
I have sometimes wondered if children who are non-sighted from birth experience a story in this same inner-visual way. I suspect not. It would seem to me that what a non-sighted child might imagine are scents, the sounds of voices, the feel of objects, etc. - things from a familiar realm. In any case, the experience must be different if a book is read to a child rather than being read by the child, sighted or not.
I am a huge fan of audio format. I still get the enjoyment of the complete book because I am careful to use the unabridged versions. I think abridged copies are cheating; however, I am willing to concede that half a pie can be better than no pie at all. As an tool for interpreting written text, i.e. traditional reading, it is of marginal use, with one exception: many children listen to the unabridged audio versions as they follow along in the corresponding book. This works for children who are fluent enough readers to keep up with the speed and flow of a narration, and can help them with pronunciations and give them context for unfamiliar words.
Non-mechanical audio is the number one way to listen to a book. What do I mean? Why, human voice, of course. In hearing Mom or Dad or Sister or Brother read a book, the child not only perceives aural signposts, but is also cradled in the comfort of a familiar and beloved voice. And as a bonus, children pick up on cultural cues as well: vocal accent, local or regional pronunciations, and inflection. Shared responses to a story, such as a chuckle, a sigh, a note of concern make the story a group activity. In addition, parents have the opportunity to convey a sense of their own value system as they read.
One other form of audial reading has a curious twist: reading aloud to oneself. I have read aloud for a couple of reasons: to savor a particularly excellent turn-of-phrase, to impress on my mind a particularly salient point, or to use as a method to confirm my understanding. This later is a peculiarity of my own learning system. I find that reading a sentence aloud helps me clarify an especially difficult point.
For most of us, most of the time, reading involves sitting silently with a book reading inside our heads. This is a completely different experience than the previous two. As noted at the beginning of this column, it is the place where our image production holds full and unfettered sway. I see my colleagues finishing up a lunch break by "curling up" with a book. The physical manifestation of this is varied. One young colleague has a style I admire - she is able to lean back in a chair with absolute unstudied relaxation, delicately balanced on the very cutting edge of falling, but completely comfortable, safe and sanguine and involved in a story heart and soul (and consciousness). She is the picture of peaceful enjoyment. It seems to me that such completely absorbed consumption of a good story is the pinnacle of what we wish to impart to our children. We give them a sturdy vehicle for a solitary trip to the stars, and a place to park the spaceship when they need the sound of our voice.