Screening for speech and language delay in preschool children: Systematic evidence review for the US preventive services task force

Heidi D. Nelson, Peggy Nygren, Miranda Walker, Rita Panoscha

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

316 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND. Speech and language development is a useful indicator of a child's overall development and cognitive ability and is related to school success. Identification of children at risk for developmental delay or related problems may lead to intervention services and family assistance at a young age, when the chances for improvement are best. However, optimal methods for screening for speech and language delay have not been identified, and screening is practiced inconsistently in primary care. PURPOSE. We sought to evaluate the strengths and limits of evidence about the effectiveness of screening and interventions for speech and language delay in preschool-aged children to determine the balance of benefits and adverse effects of routine screening in primary care for the development of guidelines by the US Preventive Services Task Force. The target population includes all children up to 5 years old without previously known conditions associated with speech and language delay, such as hearing and neurologic impairments. METHODS. Studies were identified from Medline, PsycINFO, and CINAHL databases (1966 to November 19, 2004), systematic reviews, reference lists, and experts. The evidence review included only English-language, published articles that are available through libraries. Only randomized, controlled trials were considered for examining the effectiveness of interventions. Outcome measures were considered if they were obtained at any time or age after screening and/or intervention as long as the initial assessment occurred while the child was ≤5 years old. Outcomes included speech and language measures and other functional and health outcomes such as social behavior. A total of 745 full-text articles met our eligibility criteria and were reviewed. Data were extracted from each included study, summarized descriptively, and rated for quality by using criteria specific to different study designs developed by the US Preventive Services Task Force. RESULTS. The use of risk factors for selective screening has not been evaluated, and a list of specific risk factors to guide primary care physicians has not been developed or tested. Sixteen studies about potential risk factors for speech and language delay in children enrolled heterogeneous populations, had dissimilar inclusion and exclusion criteria, and measured different risk factors and outcomes. The most consistently reported risk factors included a family history of speech and language delay, male gender, and perinatal factors. Other risk factors reported less consistently included educational levels of the mother and father, childhood illnesses, birth order, and family size. The performance characteristics of evaluation techniques that take ≤10 minutes to administer were described in 24 studies relevant to screening. Studies that were rated good to fair quality reported wide ranges of sensitivity and specificity when compared with reference standards (sensitivity: 17-100%; specificity: 45-100%). Most of the evaluations, however, were not designed for screening purposes, the instruments measured different domains, and the study populations and settings were often outside of primary care. No "gold standard" has been developed and tested for screening, reference standards varied across studies, few studies compared the performance of ≥2 screening techniques in 1 population, and comparisons of a single screening technique across different populations are lacking. Fourteen good- and fair-quality randomized, controlled trials of interventions reported significantly improved speech and language outcomes compared with control groups. Improvement was demonstrated in several domains including articulation, phonology, expressive language, receptive language, lexical acquisition, and syntax among children in all age groups studied and across multiple therapeutic settings. Improvement in other functional outcomes such as socialization skills, self-esteem, and improved play themes were demonstrated in some, but not all, of the 4 studies that measured them. In general, studies of interventions were small and heterogeneous, may be subject to plateau effects, and reported short-term outcomes based on various instruments and measures. As a result, long-term outcomes are not known, interventions could not be compared directly, and generalizability is questionable. CONCLUSIONS. Use of risk factors to guide selective screening is not supported by studies. Several aspects of screening have been inadequately studied to determine optimal methods, including which instrument to use, the age at which to screen, and which interval is most useful. Trials of interventions demonstrate improvement in some outcome measures, but conclusions and generalizability are limited. Data are not available addressing other key issues including the effectiveness of screening in primary care settings, role of enhanced surveillance by primary care physicians before referral for diagnostic evaluation, non-speech and language and long-term benefits of interventions, and adverse effects of screening and interventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e298-e319
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2006


  • Interventions
  • Preschool children
  • Screening
  • Speech and language delay and disorders

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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