Whether masked words can be processed at a semantic level remains a controversial issue in cognitive psychology. Although recent behavioral studies have demonstrated masked semantic priming for number words, attempts to generalize this finding to other categories of words have failed. Here, as an alternative to subliminal priming, we introduce a sensitive behavioral method to detect nonconscious semantic processing of words. The logic of this method consists of presenting words close to the threshold for conscious perception and examining whether their semantic content modulates performance in objective and subjective tasks. Our results disclose two independent sources of modulation of the threshold for access to consciousness. First, prior conscious perception of words increases the detection rate of the same words when they are subsequently presented with stronger masking. Second, the threshold for conscious access is lower for emotional words than for neutral ones, even for words that have not been previously consciously perceived, thus implying that written words can receive nonconscious semantic processing.