Penny McKay (1948 – 2009)--- Penny McKay Photo

As a teacher, consultant, researcher, keynote speaker and professional activist, Penny McKay was a leader in language education in Australia and internationally. Working collaboratively with educators and researchers in schools, she pioneered an approach to assessing learners' development in English as an additional language.

Penny was committed to four fundamental principles.

First, assessment frameworks should be tied to empirical, classroom-based observations of English language learners of different ages and backgrounds.

Second, those frameworks should respect and respond to classroom teachers' understandings of and insights into their learners.

Third, assessment frameworks must be informed by theory as it continually develops.

Finally, assessment frameworks must be designed to support learners' language development and to inform teachers in their teaching.

Penny died prematurely in 2009 from ovarian cancer. She is greatly mourned by Australian and overseas language educators.


The Penny McKay Memorial Award honours Penny’s contribution to research and development in second/additional language education.

The Award is for an outstanding doctoral thesis which benefits the teaching and learning of second/additional languages in Australian schools and pre-schools, including Indigenous languages, community languages, foreign languages, Standard Australian English as an additional language or variety, and English as a foreign language.

The Award is jointly offered by the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA), the Australian Council of TESOL Associations (ACTA) and the Association for Language Testing and Assessment of Australia and New Zealand (ALTAANZ). Finances related to the Award are administered by ALAA.

The 2019 Award consists of $500, a certificate and free conference registration at the ALAA Conference to be held in Curtin University, Perth in November 2019. The winner will be offered a slot to present a paper on an aspect of their research at that conference.

The winner will be formally announced at the AGM of each Association and the 2019 Award will be presented at the ALAA Conference. The winner’s name and a 300 word summary of their thesis will be published in each Association’s journal (ALAA – The Australian Review of Applied Linguistics; ACTA - TESOL in Context; ALTAANZ - Language Assessment Matters). The names of winners in every year will be shown on the website of each Association.

Donating to the Award

The Award was established and is maintained from donations from individuals, professional associations and other institutions in Australia and overseas, and from the sale of Penny’s extensive professional library. These funds are invested securely as agreed by ALAA, ACTA and ALTAANZ according to the normal procedures governing such funds.

Your help is needed to maintain this Award which carries forward Penny’s lifelong commitment to language education that is grounded in both research and the insights of practising teachers.

To donate to the maintenance of this Award, please go to Make a Donation for further details. 

2019 Award submission

The closing date for 2019 applications is 1 August 2019. 

Details of evaluation procedures and criteria, and application forms can be found on the ALAA website.


More about Penny McKay

Penny’s approach to teaching:

All of us approach teaching in different ways. For me, teaching has been, from the beginning, an iterative activity – working with students, teachers and researchers to search for, try out and disseminate effective teaching practices. I’ve always sought to observe, ask questions, and find patterns in how English and other languages are learned and taught. My life as a language consultant and researcher has been a stimulating journey of workshops, drafts and feedback seminars with students and colleagues. My colleagues’ questions about what is happening and being trialled in their classrooms has been an invaluable contribution to my work. We have become successful as language educators by working collaboratively and sharing our knowledge and skills like this.

Penny McKay, 15th February 2009

A co-researcher describing Penny’s approach to classroom research (interview with Helen Moore, 30 January 1997):

Penny was wonderful. ... We’d get into the classroom and we’d say, ‘And then this should happen and this should happen’. But she’d keep asking us, ‘What does happen?’ ‘What is happening there?’ ‘What is development?’

To read more about Penny McKay:

Dooley, Karen and Moore, Helen. 'Penny Mckay 1948-2009: A Leader in English Language Education', TESOL in Context, Vol. 19 Issue 2 (Dec 2009) 50-66.

Previous Award Winners


In 2014, the first year of the Award, the Panel decided that they could not distinguish between two outstanding theses. Consequently, we congratulate:

Susan Creagh for her thesis "A Foucauldian and Quantitative Analysis of NAPLaN, the category 'Language Background Other Than English' and English as a Second Language Level" (presented at the University of Queensland).


Julia Rothwell for her thesis "Let's eat the captain! Thinking, feeling, doing: Intercultural language learning through process drama" (presented at the Queensland University of Technology).

The recipients received their awards at the 2014 ACTA International TESOL Conference in Melbourne on 1 October 2014, at the beginning of the Penny McKay Memorial Plenary Lecture, given by Professor Chris Davison.


Jennifer AlfordConceptualisations and enactment of Critical Literacy for senior high school EAL learners in Queensland, Australia: commitments, constraints and contradictions” (Queensland University of Technology).


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