My school tried to teach me whole word when I was little. This completely failed for me, I think because I knew that the letters had pronunciations. The teacher would flash a word, and I would try to read it, but couldn’t. She would say the word, and the other kids would say the word, and I thought she was allowing us to know whether the pronunciation we had made in our head was correct or not, not that she was teaching us the word that that group of symbols is meant to represent. I thought all the other kids must have been taught to read already, since they were repeating back what the teacher said, merrily, while I had no idea what word had been flashed or how they had gotten to that answer.
My mom taught me phonics over the summer, and within 3 years, I was reading Shakespeare. I could sound out most words, to figure out which ones they were. If I didn’t know them already, I could look them up. But I could also continue on reading, using context to figure out the definition, and phonics to guesstimate the pronunciation. Later in life, I have discovered a few words that I had always (in my head) pronounced wrong, but there’s really no harm in that. Pronounced right or wrong, a larger vocabulary is mostly just good for reading and writing anyways, and you’re still a better human for having that.
I’ve also learned Japanese. This has two sound-based alphabets and a meaning-based pictograph set of several thousand characters. The best way to learn to read and write Japanese is to learn the phonic alphabets and then, reading comic books, there are almost always pronunciation guides to every pictograph. With repetition, you are able to link the character and the pronunciation, and then you are good for the rest of time. This allows for self-taught whole-word learning.
And it sucks. For words that appear in comics, I know them perfectly. But most books don’t have the pronunciation guides. Comics only ever have dialogue, so all the adjectives and verbs that describe a scene and what a person is doing are outside of my vocabulary. Jumping into a novel, you have to look up two or three words every single sentence, and when you are looking up pictographs that can take 2-3 minutes (per pictograph, and most words have 2 characters). By the time you’ve figured out one word, you’ve forgotten what was happening in the story.
Latin characters are far more easy to look up in a dictionary than pictographs. If you know the alphabet, you can get to the word you want pretty quickly. But it’s still a drag to do. As a kid, learning to read, I had a dictionary right by my bed and I would use it occasionally. But mostly I didn’t. Mostly, I used context. If I had had to turn to a dictionary for every word, the rate of progress that I made, going from “Mr. Men” to “Henry V” in a few years, would have been completely impossible.
Having learned other languages, I will grant that English does suck. But as modern spelling bees show, most words have a few origins (Germanic, French, Latin, and Greek, mainly) and once you have exposure to a decent number of words, you start to pick up on how those different eddies work and you can usually, accurately guess how a word might be spelled or pronounced based on other, similar words within the same realm - even if, at that age, you don’t understand the etymology and aren’t consciously keeping track of word groups.
English has traditionally been taught phonetically, because it makes more sense to teach phonetically. Chinese has traditionally been taught whole-word, because it makes more sense to teach it that way. But, frankly, pictographs are worse than a sound-based writing system. You gain just as much guessing room from a pictograph as you do from shared etymologies, and the ability to guess meaning without knowing a word is the only thing that pictographs have going for them (other than caligraphy). Were it not for the relatively continuous history of China, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese writing system would have long since been abandoned for something else.
If you have the option to not do anything pictographic, and to not teach like words are pictographs, even if it’s a bit clunky, I really would say that it’s better to do so. Maybe not for every kid - different minds work differently from one another - but probably for most.
Personally, as someone who has learned two of the hardest, wonkiest written languages on Earth, my suggestion would be to reform English spelling so that it is more easily taught. It will make it easier for everyone to learn and help to allow the language to continue on being the lingua franca of the world. Maybe if French hadn’t had the whole masculine and feminine nonsense, it would have remained as the literal lingua franca all of the way until modern day.